After Blow-Up (1966) and Zabriskie Point (1970) Antonioni still owed producer Carlo Ponti one more film. Ponti vetoed the director's original project, 'Technically Sweet', because it would have involved costly and dangerous location shooting up the Amazon. Instead he handed him a script by Mark Peploe, who had already worked with Antonioni on Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, entitled 'Final Exit'. Peploe had originally hoped to direct this himself but the proposed budget was too high to be entrusted to an inexperienced director, and so, at very short notice and amidst some confusion as to casting, The Passenger became Antonioni's last film for Ponti.
In Antonioni's hands Peploe's original story became not simply the charting of an identity crisis, the fashionable study in alienation that any mere synopsis of the narrative suggests, but rather an interrogation of the whole process of cinematic representation: Furio Colombo, the producer of Antonioni's Chung Kao (1973, China), has even called it 'a "documentary" on the nature of the film medium'. In this respect it is particularly significant that one of the film's scenarists was Peter Wollen whose book Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, first published in 1969, champions precisely the kind of self-referential cinema represented by The Passenger and whose apogee is the work of Jean-Luc Godard.
In fact Antonioni had already begun his investigations of film form in Blow-Up, but in The Passenger the self-referential process is taken further and informs the film's whole structure. Here the linear flow of what could have been a quite conventional thriller plot is constantly disrupted. The narrative is purposely ambiguous and disorientating, and the spectator is forced continuously to re-assimilate, re-assess, and re-interpret what is shown on screen.
At one stage the world-weary Locke complains that 'we translate every experience into the same old codes'. Locke's crisis is not Antonioni's, however, for in The Passenger the director is clearly attempting to transform the narrative codes within which he is working, to turn them against themselves. It is thus impossible to read The Passenger in the traditionally linear way in which audiences normally look at films. For example, the spectator is frequently left unclear as to a shot's viewpoint, not knowing whether it is that of one of the characters in the drama or a peice of impersonal, third-person narration. Events central to the narrative (including Locke's death) happen off-screen, and what appear to be direct cuts within scenes are suddenly revealed as involving considerable lapses in time.
Even the opening of the film is mysterious, oblique and elliptical: it is some minutes before the images take on a degree of coherence and the viewer understands what is taking place. Throughout, the camera seems to assert itself autonomously, moving in directions apparently unmotivated by any on-screen action or by a character's viewpoint. And frequently its position is deliberately 'inadequate' as far as any direct, straightforward communication of the plot is concerned, while Jack Nicholson's leading role is often denied by the camera's various movements and framings. In the famouse final seven-minute shot - in which the camera begins by registering Locke on the bed then moves out through his hotel window to explore the square outside and finally returns to find him dead - the subject is not so much Locke, and neither is the purpose the advancement of the narrative; rather, it is the very act of seeing, of looking, which is all-important here.
Indeed, this is the implicit subject of the whole film. Locke depends on his powers of observation for his livelihood, but he cannot really see at all because he cannot understand the world about him. Instead, he hides behind a cloak of supposed objectivity and impartiality. As Rachel says to him, 'you put yourself in political situations but you have no dialogue.' Antonioni, on the other hand, analyses not only his characters' ideological situations, he also demonstrates an ideological awareness of his own cinematic practice.
The Passenger explicitly raises questions about film and reality, and nowhere more clearly than in the scene in which Locke uncomprehendingly interviews a witch-doctor who finally tells him that 'your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers would be about me.' He then turns Locke's camera away from himself and onto Locke, whose only response is to become confused and switch it off, quite unable to engage with the issues thus raised. All the various film-within-a-film sequences perform a similarly self-referential function, making The Passenger not simply an elaborate and sophisticated journey movie but also a conscious examination of the cinematic medium.