This movie was the opposite of almost every modern mainstream film. It has the trappings of a typical international thriller, but chooses to run with that plot in a completely and indescribably unique and challenging way. I have not seen any other Antonioni, but if anyone has recommendations I am all ears.
The movie boasted what in the mid 70's was a surefire cast. Jack Nicholson (in the same year he did Cuckoo's Nest- good year Jack!) and Maria Schneider of Last Tango in Paris fame showed up in the film during career highs. Although Nicholson's career has been so sweet, the whole damn thing has pretty much been a high. Except Wolf.
This movie takes its cast, which would surely be a bankable leading tandem for box office success, and starts out simply enough. Nicholson is an investigative journalist somehwere in the Third World reporting on a civil war. He befriends a fellow on on this trip, and returns one day from his assignment to his motel room to find his new friend dead of a heart attack. Nonplussed, his character, Locke, responds to this death in a unique way. Noticing the man has a similar face to his, he takes his identification papers and destroys his old ones, assuming the man's identity, that of Robertson.
Various investigations by Locke turn up some interesting facts- namely that Robertson was an international arms dealer. Locke/Robertson decides to continue to attend the meetings scheduled in Robertson's planner. While travelling through Europe, he bumps into Schneider's character (unnamed in both the credits and press materials, she is known simple as The Girl). Their conversations are empty. Their relationship is sexual, but I feel like I should not describe it as romantic. Nor even, sexual. I mean, they fornicate. But its completely immaterial to what is occurring.
Meanwhile Locke's estranged wife, saddened by reports of his death from the international periphery, decides to hunt down Robertson, the last man known to have encountered Locke. The wife and Locke's old boss are found in various European cities tailing Robertson/Locke, even as he has numerous meetings with actors interested in purchasing various and sundry international arms.
The film's final shot is famous, and for good reason. It is amazingly powerful. I simply cannot do it justice except to here say that it rates in my top 5 all of time. (The others, in no particular order, are the shot of Lt. Elias as he is gunned down in Platoon while helicopters circle above, the shot in Spiderman 2 where Peter erupts out of the rubble in the coffeeshop where Ock has abducted Mary Jane, the closing shot of The Godfather in which Kay gazes into Michael's office, and the incredible climactic battle scene in AVP. Actually, I just barely prefer the blood in the drain shot in Psycho. But its close!)
There is much to discuss in this movie. Firstly the names. Locke, a name tied to political philosophy of governance and property. The name seems to say held and made fixed. After all, Locke helped to develop theories of sovereignty of ownership. Locke as an identity could represent fixedness, or at least the existence of a natural order that made things the way they were- a static existence. Robertson, on the other hand, is a totally ubiquitous British name. Quite average. Perhaps it blends in. At least, we can think that at first. But since the movie reveals that "stealing an identity" is not a truly liberating move in its narrative scope, it seems the name Robertson may not in and of itself liberate. Morevoer, these individuals are defined not by their name but rather their acts. An act literally named after a name carries the baggage of those actions. Benedict Arnold anyone? Robertson has actions he must answer for, just as Locke has actions he is required by societal position to carry out.
Another read to bring to bear is existentialism. Many critics have commented on the film's literal performance of existential anxiety- Locke is a character literally running and being pursued by his old identity. His attempt to manufacture a new one just causes him to take on the baggage of Robertson in addition. Perhaps this is because his existence after the identity theft is so empty- he just cavorts about Europe with Maria Schneider. A refusal to enact a new set of behaviors to represent an identity means the old ones will just fill in the vacuum perhaps.
Excellent film. I highly recommend.