By the mid-1970s, Jack Nicholson could pretty much pick and choose his projects. He chose to go to Europe to make an existential thriller with Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni.
In The Passenger (Italy/France, 1975), Nicholson plays David Locke, a burned-out, American-educated British reporter in Africa who impulsively swaps passports with a dead man, a fellow guest in a deserted hotel. To the world, reporter David Locke is dead, while the real Locke himself assuming the identity of a gun runner. Maria Schneider (fresh from The Last Tango in Paris) is a girl he meets in Barcelona and joins him on his odyssey through the man’s itinerary, while they both flee from Locke’s producer.
The haunting drama is classic Antonioni, an existential quest for identity in an alienating world, and the cryptic plot and mysterious sense of emptiness plays even better with the remove of time. The subdued Nicholson shows none of the brash confidence or restless rebellion that made him a seventies star, gives a riveting and unexpected performance of a man grasping for something that he can’t articulate. Antonioni’s languid long take that ends the film is a tour de force that is as powerful and enigmatic now as it was in 1975.
Nicholson was so proud of his work that he put his efforts behind a restoration and re-release 30 years after its debut, complete with six minutes of footage cut from its original European cut for American distribution.
Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, and Steven Berkoff costar.