We don't know what prompts Locke to change places with Robertson. The stranded vehicle? The heat in Africa? The likelihood that the politicians he interviews won't tell him the truth? The nagging feeling that the things he reported were not quite real, or that the reporting made no difference? When Locke's "death" is reported, there's an obituary on British television and someone says that David Locke always wanted a greater sense of involvement.
He had a wife and children, it seems, and a house in London. Now, he's gone, following the very little he knows of Robertson's life.
There's an immense opposition in the set-up of this film, for just as David Locke seems to have no interior judgement or needs, he is played by the great star of the 1970s, Jack Nicholson. By 1975, the year The Passenger was made, Nicholson was the existential hero, and so it was easy to link up Locke's vague disquiet with the history of Nicholson's rebelliousness. To be cynical, you could say that director Michelangelo Antonioni had reasoned to himself that if he wanted to make a film about a man who commits his life to chance, or the sheer momentum of film passing through a camera, he'd better have the most arresting star around. What's more, as Locke goes off on his very loose journey, why not have him meet "a girl"? A girl helps give any movie focus - so why not make the girl Maria Schneider, so recently with Brando in Last Tango in Paris? Locke goes back to London briefly, as if to check on the family he is leaving. In a square in Bloomsbury, he sees the girl sitting and reading. He notices, as we do - we are good at knowing what is there in a movie for a point. After that, he follows the bare set of appointments he found in Robertson's diary, and that takes him by way of Munich to Barcelona. But it begins to dawn on him that Robertson was a gun-runner in those very parts of Africa that Locke was trying to report on. In taking a fresh path, Locke has come back to his own life at a different angle. What's more, Locke realises that his wife is following him - or rather, she thinks she is following Robertson, the man who was the last to see David Locke alive. And in Barcelona, he takes cover in a Gaudi house and finds the girl there. Who are you? she asks.
"I used to be someone else," Locke replies. "But I traded him in. What about you?" She smiles. "I'm in Barcelona. I'm talking to a man." I suppose it's a matter of taste. That kind of cryptic dialogue - half hard-boiled, half Barthes - may seem pretentious and stilted. For myself, I love Barcelona and Gaudi, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, and I can watch the world through Antonioni's eyes for ever. He is the greatest stylist of the modern era. And The Passenger may be my favourite film. It's the one I think of offering whenever people ask that question. And they ask a lot.
No, it's not in my top 10, but sometimes I think it's the one I like the best, by which I fear I mean it's the film I'd most like to be in, instead of just watching.
I don't propose to tell you a lot more about the "story" of The Passenger, and I wouldn't want to get in an argument with those of you who might sneer, "You call that a story?" A kind of chase develops, which is not to say that we ever identify every person in it for certain. There is a way of watching the film that says the girl is just a lucky or unlucky bystander who gets caught up in the action. But you can also work out a theory by which she is bait, lure and hook, a figure meant to draw Locke on until he's in a room from which he can't escape. I think the way you read her is a reflection of your nature.
If it sounds bad to you, you may be reassured to know that it was a huge flop in 1975 when it opened - as a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release. There were some critical raves, and one of the people who liked the film was Jack Nicholson who was in a position to say to the studio, well, if you don't like it, I'll buy it. And so, for over a decade, The Passenger was a Jack Nicholson property and if anyone wanted to show the film theatrically they had to get his OK. He looked after it and only recently did he sell it to Sony Classics so they can re-release it properly. And here it comes, restored and looking magical as ever - though not with any extra scenes.
I hope you'll try it and all I'd urge is listening to the title and being prepared to see passing time or narrative line as tracks on which human lives are passengers. It comes to a close at dusk in a place called the Hotel de la Gloria, somewhere in southern Spain, in one of the greatest tours de forces ever filmed. Now, I am not normally a sucker for the tour de force, and I only like this one in that the suspense of the moment is so fine that you are watching too closely to observe exactly what happens to the process of watching. That's a warning that as soon as you've seen The Passenger you're going to want to see it again, if only to see what happened to sight. And there's a body on the bed, ready for the taking. I don't care if it's a great film or not; it's the one I'd like to see tonight.
'The Passenger' is screening at the National Film Theatre, London, from 16 to 29 June, 020 7633 0274Reuse content