David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a reporter in an African state that is descending into civil war between the government and the guerillas, and he's here to track where the weapons are coming from and going to. He thinks he meets a contact when a teenage boy sits in the passenger seat of his Range Rover, and after driving him into the desert for quite some way, the boy shouts "Stop!", climbs out and walks off. What now? wonders Locke as the man who has been approaching on a camel rides on by, uncaring, but then he spots a figure at the top of a ridge. A long trek later, with a good view of the rebels as well, and Locke is in his vehicle which is bested by the terrain and has to make his way back to the hotel on foot. He expects to meet one David Robertson there again, a British businessman, but it's just not Locke's day...
Remember the days when Jack Nichoslon took chances with his film roles? That would be the seventies then, and this collaboration with renowned arthouse director Michelangelo Antonioni proved that not all of those chances were necessarily the correct ones. Again, Antonioni sets his main characters adrift in a confusion of identity and situation, and the photography by Luciano Tovoli is certainly striking, mainly thanks to Antonioni's choice of locations, but any sense of connection to the characters is thrown away with a screenplay by the director, Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen that is more concerned with a mood of detachment.
Part of this is down to the storyline's main idea, that once you give up your identity, as Locke does, you begin to flail - not literally, barely spiritually, more existentially. What Locke finds when he returns to the hotel is that Robertson, who he had been talking with just the previous day, has succumbed to a heart condition and is lying dead on his bed. For reasons best known to himself, Locke decides it would be a great way to pursue his story by pretending to be Robertson, so takes his passport, swaps his own photograph for the deceased's and drags the body into his room.
After that, it's simply a matter of informing the manager that Locke has died (they may look similar, but surely nobody could mistake Nicholson's distinctive tones for the Englishman's?) and following up the notes in Robertson's diary to work out where to go next. Everyone is fooled, including his wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) back in Britain, and so off Locke goes to Germany to meet with whoever Robertson was going to contact. However, despite picking up a file of papers in a deposit box at the airport, his contacts only make themselves known to him when he visits a church, but then it's clear what's happening: they think Locke is running guns for the guerillas.
Well, he's happy to take their money at any rate, but he's still an impostor. You might have thought that a big screen personality like Nicholson's could triumph over Antonioni's chilly and cerebral methods, but he seems all at sea here, appropriate for a character who's in a state of uncertainty, but sabotaging any suspense. Locke's individuality may be called into question, yet his old life refuses to go along with his plans and give him up, and not only because Rachel is investigating his supposed death with the help of fellow journalist Knight (Ian Hendry). Meanwhile, Locke acquires a hanger on, a curious Maria Schneider who isn't even awarded a name such is her perfunctory role, and the fact that he wants everyone to believe him dead proves that you should be careful what you wish for. There's nothing in The Passenger to set the blood pumping, it's all cool as a cucumber and about as thrilling so it might be just the thing for the analytical mind, otherwise only the odd directorial flourish stands out. Music by Ivan Vandor.
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.