Having arranged my Netflix queue according to decade, I've discovered an invariable truth: the `70s must have been one hell of a downer, man. I wasn't yet a moviegoer in the disco decade, but my DVD rentals have told me as much. By the time I was of theater age, Spielberg was already doing his thing, and people expected to be entertained, of all things, at the movies.
In 1972, when Michaelangelo Antionini released "The Passenger," —starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider ("Last Tango in Paris")—audiences were not yet so conditioned. Dramas from this era are so...much...slower than anything we have seen in the last 15 years. It's hard to believe that willing fans went to the theater to just sit and watch and soak it all up. Maybe with that late-`60s smell still lingering in the air, the early `70s enjoyed something of a contact high, or at least a hangover.
Because there must have been something perceptibly different afoot for this film to have run a good 32 minutes before a full paragraph of dialogue was uttered and still be so popular and successful.
We meet Locke, the English-born-American-bred journalist somewhere in the African desert. It could be the Sahara. We are never told, and it doesn't seem to matter. The fact is Locke is lost. He is seeking something. Nearly ten minutes of film pass; four words are uttered, and two other men wander by, one with a camel, one without. Neither man nor camel offer help. Locke soon beaches his truck in the deep white sand. He sweats, grunts and despairs, and, after some more dialogue-free minutes, he screams "Alright! I don't care!" The question for today's audience is: Will we care enough to carry on watching?
If you are a fan of the camera's methodical "watching," this movie could be your soothing balm. If you have become, as many of us have, a fast-twitch, stimulus-addicted junkie, then "The Passenger" could lead to quick boredom, or at least a decent nap. But as the sage once said, "Boredom is merely a lack of attention." "The Passenger" is thick with mood and Nicholson is well suited to carry the film's harmonic themes of alienation, aimlessness and educated apathy.
Once free from the desert, Locke returns to his African hotel, white walls crawling with insects, and finds his lone friend dead. His shock is brief and his grief secondary to a contemplative mood. The solution quickly becomes clear: The dead man's identity is up for grabs, and Locke is a prime candidate to stage his own death. He is fleeing a lackluster marriage and a reputation he no longer craves. Once the swap is complete, Locke returns to London, where we learn more about the life he has just abandoned. He observes the ripples resulting from his own demise. A newspaper column describes him as a talented reporter whose skills were buttressed by a "philosophical detachment," an apt description for a man reading his own obituary.
Soon he escapes again, this time to Spain, where he discovers a liberated and sultry Maria Schneider, the possible yin to his ruminative yang. As romantic partners are, though, she attempts to solve the riddle of her new man. But he is an incurable existentialist. He contemplates escaping again to be "a waiter in Gibraltar." A more overt exercise in indecisiveness is hard to imagine. The girl tries to recalibrate his life's compass: "You can't be like that, just escaping," she purrs. The fact that Locke's code remains unbreakable does not dissuade her, but does bring the film to its inevitably perplexing end.
Nearly thirty-five years since the film was made, some of the philosophical meandering can seem heavy. But combined with Antionini's nimble cinematography and the actors' subtle deliveries, the total package of "The Passenger" is complete.
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