KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975: The Passenger

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

The Passenger

This film is one of my blind spots from 1975. I badly wanted to see it, but it played in limited engagements on the other side of town and I never made it over there to see it. I remember as a 17 year old kid, looking at the Calendar Section of the L.A. Times, wanting to catch up with this highly praised arthouse film, featuring Jack Nicolson. This came out the same year as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, even though it had been filmed two years before the release. 

I always thought it was some kind of thriller, but it turns out to be very different in tone than I was expecting. There is almost no violence in the film, except for two brief moments. One of those moments, disturbingly, is not a fictional killing, but was a filmed execution of a bank robber in the African country of Chad. It is shown as part of a documentary that Nicholson’s character is supposed to be working on. The other moment of violence involves a single karate style kick to the head of a minor character in the film. There are two pivotal deaths in the story but both occur off screen, and they are not designed to create suspense and tension, that isn’t really what the film is about.

As I was watching the first half hour of the movie, I was worried about the pace of the film and the ambiguity of the events being shown. Eventually, most of the uncertainty about characters and their actions gets explained more clearly as the film moves on. The pace also starts to pick up when there is more dialogue. Nicholson plays a journalist, working on a story about conflict and civil war in Africa. In the 1970s, that seems to have been a constant problem, and it doesn’t look like the world has changed that much in the intervening years. His character is David Locke, and he is struggling to connect with the fighters in the conflict, but does not seem to be getting anywhere. The metaphor of spinning your wheels is also visualized literally when his Land Rover gets stuck in the sand. Later, in some flashbacks, we see that his homelife is similarly stuck in the mud, and we get a sense that maybe he is looking for a new life. When a fellow resident at his hotel dies, Locke takes over his identity, a man named David Robertson. This changes his life, but maybe not for the better.

Audiences will have to fill in the blanks and suspend a great deal of disbelief, to accept that Nicholson is able to follow through on some of his new identity’s plans.  As I was watching, it seemed strange that the man who was so feckless in Africa, was able to bluff his way through with some dangerous types early in the film. It also turns out that his wife, who thinks he is dead, is a lot more determined than he imagined she would ever be. Without credit cards, or cell phone GPS data, she is able to track down Robertson across Europe. Spain must be a small country because they practically trip over one another in the lobby of a hotel, completely by accident. 

Jack plays a disaffected man, seeking a new life, but he is still playing at someone else’s life, and getting close to being burned by doing so. I suppose it is karma that brings him together with a similarly disaffected architecture student played by Maria Schneider. They don’t quite fully commit to each other, but at times, their mutual presence gives each of them a few moments of pleasure in life that they are seemingly missing the rest of the time. Languid conversations in the car, hotel restaurant, or wherever they happen to be, make up the majority of the story in the second half of the film. There are a few chase scenes, but they are not shot like a thriller, so much as they just move us to the next obstacle. 

All of the film is a set up for a seven minute shot at the end of the movie, where events play out in front of us and behind where we can see. Almost everyone is in a long shot, and it looks to have been done as a single continuous take. One of the things that is very noticeable in the film making, is the absence of  a music score. All the events take place in a vert real world environment, that is not accentuated by movie techniques.    Michelangelo Antonioni is the director, the only other film of his that I know I have seen is “Blow Up” and I think that movie does the same sort of thing. 

One of the reasons that I had not caught up with the film was that for a number of years it was out of circulation. Nicholson himself acquired the home exhibition rights, and it was not until 2005, that the film became available, except for a very limited VHS release in the 80s.  Antonioni was unhappy with several of the cuts he was required to make to bring the film in at a reasonable runtime. The leisurely pace of that opening section might have been a place to trim, and then maybe he could have kept scenes he thought were worthy later in the picture.

I would have preferred to have this film as physical media, but one of the reasons that it is this week’s entry on the Throwback Thursday project is that I wanted to include it in my Lambcast Show this coming weekend, and the out of print discs that I could buy, could not be here in time for that show. So this is the first film that I have purchased, rather than simply renting, on a streaming platform. I hope it does not disappear when whoever now controls the video rights, decides to alter the arrangement. I don’t know how much I might have appreciated the film in 1975. Probably I would have admired it, but not completely understood it. That is not too dissimilar from my current reaction, but I do think I can make a little more sense of it now that I am older. 

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