More than a decade after completing the landmark trilogy that began with L'avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni was approached by producer Carlo Ponti, who'd first worked with him on Blow-Up. Ponti asked Antonioni to film an original story by Mark Peploe, a thriller about a journalist who trades names with a dead man.
But while Antonioni's film has the bones of a thriller, to categorize it as one would be like calling a wolf a watchdog. Its original title, in Italian, was Professione: Reporter; now the film released stateside in 1975 as The Passenger is back in a 130-minute director's cut. It's a stylistic masterpiece that thematically suggests Sartre via Hitchcock as it furthers Antonioni's despairing vision of the human condition.
The Passenger is a film whose eeriest scene might be a man's visit to his own house. David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is reporting on civil war in the African desert when a fellow hotel guest dies suddenly. For reasons never fully explained, Locke, an American-educated Brit, swaps passport photos with the corpse and returns to Europe to follow an agenda laid out by clues in the dead man's papers.
Antonioni's style, with long takes and real-time scenes, is at once realistic and dreamlike, with flashbacks that meld with present action. So it feels almost natural when Locke is taken for the deceased, who turns out to have been a black-market arms merchant. Meanwhile, Locke's wife, Rachel (Jenny Runacre), suspects something's amiss and starts searching for her supposedly dead husband -- even as he begins sharing the road with a lissome, enigmatic young woman (Maria Schneider). The story is Locke's flight from himself disguised as his pursuers. (As he tells Schneider's unnamed character, he's being followed by "a man I don't want to meet").
If that sounds pretentious, it sometimes is, a little. But you keep watching. Though the entire film is shot on location, it's all Antonioni -- landscapes of weirdness and alienation, architecture both bizarre (Gaudi's surreal Palaccio Guell, in Barcelona) and significantly unpeopled. Locke is ideally embodied by Nicholson, intense in his distraction, restless even in his own skin, who brilliantly reveals the void in his character's soul when we see footage of one of his interview subjects turning his own movie camera on him.
The Passenger (which is mostly in English) is justly famous for its penultimate scene -- a breathtaking single shot in which the camera floats like a ghost (Locke's own unhappy soul?) until it reveals the antihero's fate. But you'll find an equally useful path into this stunning, sobering film in an early scene in which Locke (who otherwise resides in a series of hotels) sneaks into the house where he lived with his wife. It's a quiet but devastating moment of alienation for a man who wishes to no longer be himself.