The 1975 film, The Passenger, tells the story of David Locke (Jack Nicholson).
Locke is a television news journalist. From what we can gather, he’s respected from his colleagues, even though he doesn’t seem to be extremely close to anyone, including his wife (Jenny Runacre). Everyone thinks that Locke is dead. They believe that he was found dead in a hotel room in Africa, the victim of a heart attack. What they don’t know is that Locke is actually alive. He switched identities with Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), the man who actually was found dead in the hotel room. After years of reporting on a world that appears to be going insane, Locke has decided that it’s time for a fresh start. He no longer wants to deal with his marriage, his career, or anything else that used to define David Locke as a person. He now just wants to be Robertson.
Of course, the problem with this plan is that Robertson had a life before Locke appropriated it. Locke discovers that Robertson was not only a gun runner but he was also supplying weaponry to the same rebels that Locke, in his previous life, traveled to Africa to do a story on. Since Locke has Robertson’s appointment book, he decides to keep all of Robertson’s meeting across Europe.
Meanwhile, Locke’s wife is curious to know about her husband’s final moments and, for that reason, she wants to speak with this mysterious Robertson, who was the last person to reportedly see her husband alive. Locke’s friend, Martin (Ian Hendry) sets out to try to track down Robertson. Locke, meanwhile, has met an architecture student (Maria Schneider), with whom he embarks on a passionate affair despite not ever learning her name.
The Passenger famously ends with a seven minute tracking shot, one that begins in a hotel room and then moves out into the hotel’s courtyard before then returning to the hotel room. While the audience is watching the action unfold in the courtyard, something very important happens inside of that hotel room. In fact, what happens in the hotel room is probably the most important moment of the entire film and yet director Michelangelo Antonioni only shows us the events leading up to the moment and the events immediately afterwards. Antonioni leaves it up to the audience to determine exactly what happened inside of that hotel room. It’s a bold move on his part and it’s also the perfect way to end this film. The Passenger is a film about detachment and it only makes sense that the film would end with the ultimate statement of detachment, with the emphasis being less on what’s happening in the hotel room and more on the fact that life, in all of its random and confusing messiness, will continue regardless of how the story of David Locke turns out.
It’s definitely not a film for everyone. Those who watch the film excepting a typically explosive Jack Nicholson performance will probably be surprised to discover that Jack plays a rather quiet character in The Passenger, one who is often so introverted that it’s a struggle to figure out what exactly is going on inside of his mind. Locke thinks that, as a journalist, he understands the world but, when he becomes Robertson, he discovers that there’s a big difference between reporting a story and actually being a part of that story. It’s an odd experience, watching Jack Nicholson play a character who is essentially in over his head. And yet, this is is also one of Nicholson’s best performances. Freed up from his usual tricks, Nicholson gives a vulnerable and ultimately rather sad performance as a man who realizes too late that he’s grown so detached from the world that he no longer really has an identity.
The Passenger‘s a difficult but intriguing film. It’s a classic of the 70s and features Jack Nicholson at his best.