Sunday 7 September 2008

The Passenger (1975)

David Locke is a journalist who finds himself in the middle of the Sahara desert. The locals don't tend to speak English and some don't speak French either. The people who guide him around tend to wander off and leave him on his own. His Land Rover gets stuck in the sand dunes. He even picks up a sunburn. In short he doesn't seem to be having a particularly good time of it. So when he finally reaches a hotel and finds that the man in the room next to him is dead, he happily takes on the man's identity. It certainly doesn't hurt that he shares the same first name and even looks vaguely like him too.

In 1975 Jack Nicholson was a name to watch. He'd been building his career gradually upwards from his days in the Corman school and he'd just reached the heights of Chinatown, so it doesn't seem surprising to find him working with a major European director like Michelangelo Antonioni. As you'd expect from such a director, there's a theme and it's outlined by a comment from Nicholson's character early on. As David Locke talks with David Robertson in their Sahara hotel, they talk about airports and taxis and hotels. Robertson suggests that they're all the same but Locke points out that they bring the sameness with them.

As the literal translation of the Italian title (Profession: Reporter) suggests, Locke can become Robertson to the world, but he's still Locke. He's always going to be Locke and a reporter at heart, whoever he pretends to become. And David Robertson, who he becomes, is an international gunrunner tied to an extremist African guerrilla movement, hardly what he expected. As he travels, from Africa to London to Munich to Barcelona, he acquires a companion: a young architecture student, played by Maria Schneider, who becomes something of a point of consistency to him. When he thinks of giving it all up again, she keeps him on track, asking the right questions at the right times.

What's weirdest isn't that he has to find out how to be Robertson and pick up where Robertson had left off, without having much of the knowledge required. It's that his old life refuses to leave him alone. Someone he worked with wants to make a feature on him and his wife becomes involved. She finally learns what's really going on and begins to track him down. Suddenly people are looking for both of him, which is more than a little strange. Also strange is the finale, which is a stunning piece of cinematic technique but one whose meaning I think needs to resonate.

After finishing this film, unfortunately in multiple segments over multiple weeks (certainly not how it should be done), I read up quite a lot about it and see that it's repeat viewings that build this one. Its strengths are probably what appear to be weaknesses when viewing it in chunks. What happens? Where does it go? How does it go there? The easy answers are not much, nowhere and who cares, but better ones are that a man learns about who he is and why he can't stop being himself, it goes to where it inevitably must and it goes there in a very subtle manner indeed. Nicholson appears to not be acting but he had a talent for that in the early seventies, as I discovered in Chinatown. Watching that one again was a revelation. I wonder if this one will be the same.

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