The film opens in the heat of the North African desert. David Locke (Nicholson) is a famed television reporter at the end of his tether. Trudging through the sand on the trail of political rebels, he’s on a sweaty mission to nowhere that’s compounded by harsh terrain and desperate temperatures. When his Land Rover buries itself in a sand dune, it’s a symbol of deeper frustration. He’s a man alienated from his world, reporting on nothing, slipping slowly into the sand. His identity is crumbling.
All of which helps to explain why when he finds his fellow hotel guest, a Brit named David Robertson, dead in his bed, he takes strange advantage of the situation. He swaps sweaty shirts, passport photos and hotel rooms and assumes Robertson’s identity, leaving the dead Robertson his own name. And so David Locke is dead, and Jack Nicholson is now ‘David Robertson’ – an identity which brings with it a whole host of new dangers…
It’s the beginning of a languorous, mysterious and quite captivating thriller that moves from Saharan Africa to London to Munich and, finally, to Barcelona and the Spanish countryside. On paper, it all sounds like classic Graham Greene territory and a standard international thriller, but Antonioni’s direction and Mark Peploe’s script offer something more artful. Events familiar from many such films (the unlocking of secret deposit boxes; car chases; crucial documents; anonymous men lurking on foreign pavements) are mere catalysts and background noises for a stylish mood piece that is as interested in emotion and landscape as plot. The conventions of the thriller are mere starting-points for an examination of Locke’s always ambiguous character. This ambiguity is mirrored in the film’s aesthetic: time and time again, Antonioni’s coolly detached camera, indulged in long takes, wanders off to examine a passing car, perhaps, or a sand dune. The photography is stunning.
Although the pairing of Nicholson with a random, anonymous girl (Maria Schneider, no less, fresh from ‘Last Tango…’) for the latter part of the movie, which is essentially a road-trip through Spain, is perhaps the film’s most superficial tic, ‘The Passenger’ lacks any of the embarrassing contemporary touches that let down parts of both ‘Blow-Up’ (frolicking models) and ‘Zabriskie Point’ (cavorting hippies). Peploe’s screenplay offers a solid inquiry into journalistic nihilism and professional and personal identity, which, coupled with Antonioni’s imagery – as captured by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli – make for an endlessly satisfying experience. Its final, famed seven-minute shot remains a delight to behold.