When Jack Nicholson's character is believed dead in The Passenger (a.k.a. Professione: reporter), a friend eulogizes him by citing his "different perspective. A kind of detachment. And then he had this great talent for observation." The same could be—and has been—said of the film's director, Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni won an Honorary Oscar in 1995, for a body of work that includes L'Avventura and Blow Up. Famed for his detachment, Antonioni brought an elliptical, enigmatic approach to bear on the international mystery of identity.
Nicholson plays David Locke, a literally world-weary journalist who reinvigorates his life by stealing another man's identity. Determined to see where the day takes him, Locke keeps the appointments in the dead man's datebook, only to discover that he has become an arms dealer. Locke's new freedom also brings the possibility of romance; with his curious widow left behind in London, Locke takes up with a young and similarly free-spirited beauty (Maria Schneider of Last Tango in Paris).
As usual, Antonioni's pace is langorous, but The Passenger is never less than compelling. With a minimum of dialogue (the screenplay is credited to Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen & Antonioni), the director noodles on profound notions of man's place in the world, his responsibilities public (Locke reports noncommittally on a North African liberation movement), personal (with friends and lovers), and to one's self. The settings—from the African desert to a walking tour of Gaudi architecture in Barcelona—are eye-catching; so too is the director's bravura finish: a seven-minute unbroken take that coolly observes Locke's fate.
Though transferred from one of the newly struck theatrical prints (with six minutes of footage not seen in the film's initial US release), the grainy image on Sony's disc of The Passenger betrays the film's age. But The Passenger was never a film meant to sparkle: this is an earthy film, and the transfer suits the picture. Happily for film fans, Sony gathered talent for two feature-length, screen-specific commentaries, one a rare sit-down with star Jack Nicholson, and the other a conversation between journalist Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe.
Though the commentary is somewhat spotty, Nicholson shares observations about Antonioni's style and intentions, as well as some recollections about the man and the production. The actor paraphrases his director's filmmaking philosophy ("I arrive at the set, and then I try to film the documentary of the actual day as it happened"); explains why Antonioni one day told him, "I have to pretend to be furious"; supplies an anecdote of a car chase gone wrong, and explains two things about the infamous final shot: how it was accomplished and why Antonioni designed it in the first place.
Peploe is considerably chattier, explaining the artistic, cultural, and political contexts of the film, as well as how his deal to write and direct an international thriller became a collaboration with Antonioni. A Reissue Trailer (2:09) rounds out the special edition of The Passenger, a cinema mainstay.
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