Jack Nicholson has played the easy-grin middle-aged rebel for so long that it’s a shock, watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s moody and fascinating 1975 art thriller The Passenger, to be reminded of what a sleek smolder he once gave off. Tanned and brooding, with aviator sunglasses that set off his narrow chiseled features, Nicholson, in his prime, was handsome enough to cruise by on his looks, and the fact that he never did — his anger, with its hint of torment, undercut any impulse toward vanity — only enhanced the mordant sexiness of his latter-day Bogart appeal.
The Passenger, which is being rereleased in an elegant restored version, was essentially a collaboration between Antonioni, the high priest of postmodern upper-middle-class anxiety (Blow-Up, L’Avventura), and Nicholson, the haunted superstar without a cause who embodied, more than any other actor of his era, the meeting of American dreams and despair. He plays David Locke, a television journalist, respected for his exposés, who finds himself in the North African desert, pursuing a story that holds no meaning for him — no more so, he realizes, than his own life. When he learns that the friendly British chap in the motel room next to him has suffered a fatal heart attack, he switches passport photos and takes on the dead man’s identity, literally wiping out his own existence.
In design, The Passenger is reminiscent of Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, only this is like a Ripley opus played in slow motion, submerged in the desolate waters of inaction. Antonioni shows little interest in suspense mechanics. It turns out that Locke has assumed the identity of an international arms smuggler, but as he receives a payoff for a shipment he never makes, he displays no goal, no desire. Nicholson plays Locke’s odyssey as a withdrawal from the world. The film is poised between our desire to see him escape to a new life and our curiosity about what’s motivating his downward spiral.
I never quite bought Nicholson as a journalist (if anything, he looks more dangerous than the gunrunner), and The Passenger has an overlay of radical-chic politics that has dated badly. We’re supposed to accept that Locke, in his reporting, is guilty of reinforcing the corrupt colonial power dynamics that oppress African nations, and that by taking the place of a gunrunner who provides arms to guerrillas, he’s flirting with becoming a moral man. Yet The Passenger, a languidly beautiful film noir to nowhere, has a vividness that transcends its era. In Spain, Locke, pursued both by his wife and by his lethal new business associates, encounters a young woman who helps to sneak him out of his hotel room, and Maria Schneider, in her one prominent role after Last Tango in Paris, proves remarkably sympathetic. She’s like Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas, fulfilling her attraction to a lost man by smoothing his road to oblivion. The Passenger isn’t finally the masterpiece some have made it out to be, but it retains a singular intrigue: It’s the first, and probably the last, thriller ever made about depression.