“We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality.” – Michelangelo Antonioni (1)

No filmmaker of the modern era has created such indelible images of the urban universe, or so persistently, and with deliberate ambiguity, withheld from his audiences easy insights into the motives of his characters as Michelangelo Antonioni. Trained as an architect, obsessed by the look of the modern city, he was above all interested in the figures in the landscape, urban or desert, and nowhere is this clearer (in an often highly symbolic manner) than in The Passenger (1975).

The film’s story unfolds slowly and almost majestically, with Antonioni’s architectonic signature signed with a flourish on every film frame and camera angle. Surely no filmmaker since Carl Dreyer has shown such an eye for the formal and the almost Palladian and classical balance of the human figure on a cinema screen. With an elliptical script from the director, Mark Peploe (who was highly influenced as a student by Antonioni’s mystical Blow-Up [1966]), and film theorist Peter Wollen, this is a symbolic journey from the first shot.

The Passenger begins rather like a western as a loping and tanned figure wanders through a flyblown African village, leaps into a Land Rover and roars off. He’s London-based journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) working as a journalist making a documentary film on post-colonial Africa. Locke drives into the Sahara Desert trying to meet guerilla fighters involved in Chad’s civil war only to find frustration and then a sand dune from which the Land Rover will never emerge. Banging the trapped car angrily with a shovel, this is a man at the end of his tether.

Staggering back to the hotel in the dusty village Locke finds that a charming fellow traveller called David Robertson, (who looks remarkably like him in case you miss it!), has suddenly died in the adjoining room. Locke, the very image of Graham Greene’s archetypal anti-hero, the burnt-out case, decides to assume the dead man’s identity, throw in everything he’s doing and start again with this new identity and a clean slate – literally a tabula rasa.

With no idea of who Robertson actually was or what he did for a living, Locke uses Robertson’s diary as a guide as he travels through Africa and Europe – in Munich meeting with people he finds out are gun-runners – and ends up falling for the Girl (Maria Schneider). A classic thriller plot you’d think.

As Robertson, Locke believes – for a very short while – that he has found real freedom, but the fact is he’s in over his head: there are killers tracking him and Antonioni’s narrative now moves into a lower and more deadly gear. We also embark on a journey that meshes privacy with anonymity, all played out against some of the most lushly picturesque scenery every recorded on film. Panoramic wide shots abound as Locke travels through Munich, Barcelona, and rural Spain. In two highly charged shots, one with Locke in a cable car soaring, waving his arms like an eagle, high above the port of Barcelona, another as the Girl is framed by rushing trees down a Spanish road, we can sense the desperate urge to be utterly free of society and of history itself.

As Jack Nicholson stated: “In an Antonioni film you see things rather than hear them” (2). And indeed this is a film where sounds, a buzzing fly, a running shower, are as important as dialogue – maybe more so. Never more so than in the complex sound mix (one of the first great soundscapes of the postmodern film era) over the now famous, climactic, tracking shot.

There are so many elegantly framed scenes in The Passenger that could only have been drawn by Antonioni: Locke’s first sighting of the Girl on a bench in London; his discovery of Robertson’s body and sudden recognition of the doppelganger lying dead in front of him; the haunting, odd and beautiful Gaudi buildings in Barcelona; the failed rendezvous at that white, weirdly geometric village; the Plaza de la Iglesia; and the brilliant payoff to it all at the Hotel de las Glorias.

The Passenger

 

The Passenger’s slow pace, long, lingering shots, focus on emptiness, and detached, almost brutally objective point-of-view are the Antonioni trademarks on full display here.

One single shot, The Passenger’s most famous (and penultimate) scene, is a seven-minute long dolly which begins in Locke’s hotel room looking out into a dusty, run-down square, pulls out through the bars in the hotel window into the square, rotates 180 degrees, and finally tracks back into the hotel room. Only the opening shot of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and, of course, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) can match it for a breathless, almost operatic display of cinema’s technical and artistic resources. Nicholson, in his commentary, calls the shot an “Antonioni joke” (3). 

Antonioni had directed this whole fiendishly complex scene from a van by means of monitors and microphones, talking to assistants who communicated his instructions to the actors and operators. Only a year later (1976) the wholly portable Steadicam, which uses a counterweight system rather than gyroscopes, would become available for this kind of shot, greatly simplifying such (over complicated?) setups. Later still the fly by wire (like an Airbus) Skycam became the way to fly cameras anywhere without the need for such wildly excessive pre-planning and labour!

One of the recurring elements in Antonioni’s films is a central character who suffers from ennui and whose life is empty and purposeless aside from the gratification of pleasure or the pursuit of material wealth. As in early Godard movies (À bout de souffle [1960], Pierrot le fou [1965]), the anti-hero moves aimlessly from crisis to crisis as if trapped in an existential pinball machine.

So, in the end, The Passenger is a thriller in structure only. While delivering real suspense, it’s also a skyhook from which Antonioni can dangle themes of identity, the riddle of existence and of human isolation. For Antonioni, the onscreen action is the means by which the images unfold and the actors and plot are set pieces. Atmosphere supersedes all else.

Endnotes

  1. Charles Thomas Samuels, “Michelangelo Antonioni”, Encountering Directors, Capricorn Books,New York, 1972, p. 23.
  2. Jack Nicholson on the commentary accompanying the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD of The Passenger.
  3. Nicholson.

The Passenger/Professione: reporter (1975 Italy/Spain/France/USA 119 mins) Prod Co: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion Prod: Carlo Ponti Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Scr: Mark Peploe, Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Wollen Phot: Luciano Tovoli Ed: Franco Arcalli, Michelangelo Antonioni Art Dir: Piero Poletto Mus: Ivan Vandor Cast: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Steven Berkoff, Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, Ambroise Bia

About The Author

Jonathan Dawson recently retired as Associate Professor in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University (Queensland) and is now Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He has written and directed scores of films, television series and documentaries. He is also a major contributor to Ian Aitken’s The Encyclopaedia of Documentary Film, including the essay on Australian documentary cinema.
Sadly, in the intervening years since writing this piece, the author has passed away.