The signature shot in any Michelangelo Antonioni film finds a man interacting with the landscape, always from a distance wide enough that his significance is implicitly called into question. Antonioni's characters sometime encounter problems of perception in their search for meaning, like the photographer feebly parsing out the real from the unreal in Blow-up, but more often, they're simply lost, swallowed up in the arid expanses of films like L'Avventura and Zabriskie Point. Perversely, Antonioni's cool 1975 existential drama The Passenger reads like a globetrotting Hollywood thriller, a tale of mistaken identity and international intrigue shot in five countries with Jack Nicholson in the lead role. There's even a car chase at one point, and at least a few shifty glances from dangerous strangers. Yet at heart, the film grapples with the consequences of exchanging one's life for another's, a fantasy that's formed the basis for countless body-switching comedies, but has never been treated with this level of somber reflection.
In one of his most naturalistic performances, Nicholson projects supreme, easygoing confidence as an esteemed American broadcast reporter who travels to the Sahara to cover a guerrilla war. He never actually finds the war, but he does find an opportunity of sorts back at an oasis hotel, where he discovers the body of a man who looks like him and casually decides to swap identities. With the man's guidebook in hand, Nicholson pursues his new life with vigor, making appointments in far-flung places from Munich to Barcelona. Along the way, he falls in love with the seductive Maria Schneider, a mystery woman billed here simply as The Girl, but his newfound freedom isn't all perks. It turns out that the dead man was a gunrunner, and before long, Nicholson is in over his head.
Re-released for a theatrical run last year, The Passenger comes to DVD with an unexpected and riveting commentary track by Nicholson, who speaks in a deep whisper about the arduous production and Antonioni's unconventional methods. Nicholson claims that Antonioni thought about actors as "moving space"—which may explain why Schneider's performance is so dreadful—but he doesn't mean it as an insult so much as a description of the director's methodology: The Passenger may have the outlines of a thriller, but it's less about action than about providing space for an audience to think within the frame. And in the '70s, they didn't mind that, either.
Key features: Nicholson's commentary, plus a second one with screenwriter Mark Peploe and journalist Aurora Irvine.