Jack Nicholson won his first Academy Award for 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but it was not his best performance for that year. That honor came via his extraordinary role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” which is enjoying a commercial re-release after being out of circulation for too many years.
Nicholson’s work in “The Passenger” is everything “Cuckoo’s Nest” is not: it is deceptively passive, often silent, and so subtle that you genuinely forget you are watching an actor going through his paces. Whereas “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a brilliantly over-the-top accomplishment, “The Passenger” is more brilliant with the most effortless underplaying one can ever hope to witness on screen.
Nicholson plays David Locke, a television journalist in an unnamed African country who is trying to shoot a documentary on a rebel movement against the tyrannical dictator. He finds himself at a hotel with a loquacious yet mysterious man named Robertson, who abruptly dies of a heart attack in his room. For no immediately obvious reason, Locke decides to take the dead man’s identity. He alters passports and swaps belongings to make it appear Locke died. As Robertson, he heads off for a new life.
But as what? The faux-Robertson, working from an appointment book and assorted notes left behind by the real-Robertson, arrives in Munich to discover the dead man’s line of work: a gun runner to the African rebels. Locke/Robertson bluffs his way through a meeting with the agents arranging the gun shipment and leaves with a cool half-million dollars for his alleged connections. He rents a car and heads for Barcelona, where he hooks up with an equally mysterious girl (Maria Schneider – her character has no name). He is comfortable enough to level with the girl about his identity and situation, which is perfect since his former life begins to intrude: Locke’s wife and former employer unexpected arrive in Barcelona, trying to seek answers to Locke’s untimely death.
Admittedly, there are parts of “The Passenger” which make little sense. Nicholson’s character is supposedly British, but his distinctive New Jersey voice is explained away by stating Locke was “educated in America” (of course, it was cheaper to shoot the film in London than America, hence the British connection). It also doesn’t help that Schneider (fresh off her part as Brando’s playmate in “Last Tango in Paris”) couldn’t act for beans. Her line readings are incredibly flat and often sound phonetic; it is easy to see why her star never truly shined.
Yet Nicholson is clearly the soul of “The Passenger” and he is truly amazing. His character is a man who is constantly in situations beyond his control: trying and failing to navigate the Sahara for a story, ineptly grilling the Africans for his TV interviews, attempting to pretend he is an arms smuggler, mucking up Spanish in his attempts to communicate with the locals in Barcelona, and even in imagining he could jettison his old life without anyone being the wiser (the scene where Locke’s wife discovers the altered passport in her husband’s belongings is one of the all-time great “holy shit” scenes).
But throughout the film, he gamely goes about the charade with a perverse sense of insouciance (save for a brief Sahara moment when frustration gets the better of him as he pummels his sand-trapped jeep with a shovel). Unwilling to acknowledge his scheme cannot work, he gamely attempts to elude terrorists, police, his former boss and his wife without breaking a sweat. But he also never breaks into wisecracks, tough guy violence or out-of-character antics. He also doesn’t fall into the “Jaaaack” shtick which ruined so much of his later performances and turned him into fodder for Billy Crystal’s Oscar telecast jokes. Instead, Nicholson plays an ordinary man who faces extraordinary circumstances without losing his ordinary demeanor. Even in moments when he is pessimistically morose, he reflects on his fate with a calm that is almost eerie – there is no big acting, and no need for it. With Nicholson, a tired glance and deflated body language says more than pages of dialogue.
In fact, Nicholson is so willing to lose himself into this unusual character that the climactic sequence (a stunning seven-minute unbroken take involving a complext choreography of people and cars) is conducted with the actor most absent from sight, even though his presence is the core of the commotion. It is the rare actor who can be the center of attention without being front-and-center present.
“The Passenger” was an Italian production (Carlo Ponti had producer credit) and it was shot in England, Germany, Spain and Algeria. The film has long stretches without dialogue, which would clearly have helped in selling it to foreign markets (the less dubbing, the better). The film vanished from sight after its mid-1980s home video release. Nicholson acquired the rights to “The Passenger” from MGM, which released the film originally, and kept it out of view until this year. The version in re-release is Antonioni’s preferred European version, running 126 minutes. If any film demands to be seen again, this is it.