Wednesday, March 21, 2012
The Passage (1979)
There's two mysteries in the world of cinema for me: 1. How did John Barry end up with directing Saturn 3, a job Stanley Donen (of all people) took over after a shirt time and 2. Why did Maurice Binder produce J. Lee Thompson's The Passage? None of them are famous for either their directing duties or being a producer, and both movies are exploitative high profile flops! And I like both of them also, which might not be surprising for you who read Ninja Dixon from time to time. I have a tendency to find something good in many movies.
The Passage is an important part of the memories of us who grew up during the eighties and hanged around video stores. The iconic cover with Malcolm McDowell looking through binoculars has followed me for many years, and even if the Swedish tape seemed very cut it was a good, memorable movie. I've been wanting to see it again for many years, but always missed it when someone was selling the Spanish DVD - but during my last trip to Thailand I found it and got a chance to watch it again after all these years.
While the movie never comes off as sensational or unique, The Passage has been unfairly bashed over the years by people who probably expected something larger, grander... maybe classy? The cast, from Anthony Quinn and James Mason Christopher Lee and Malcolm McDowell - and even the always excellent Michael Lonsdale (now a religious nut in his homeland France) - brings an aura of quality to the project about a Basque shepherd (Quinn) taking the job of bringing a family over the mountains into safety in Spain, hunted by Gestapo-psycho McDowell. The story itself is pretty straightforward with some action scenes from time to time (often quite bloody and graphic) and a lot of breathtaking exteriors.
I'm not sure, but the presence of McDowell feels like an extension of Caligula, with some gratuitous sex (including a jockstrap with a swastika on). Maybe McDowell deliberately tried to break his moral barriers during this period in these weird European productions? Some might say that he's chewing the scenery, but I think he's quite good - and not in an overacting way. The only one working on routine is Quinn, which doesn't mean he's bad - but we've seen it before many times. So even the laidback performance by Mason, a man who's never done a bad job in his whole life - but here probably just collected the paycheck. One piece of odd casting is Kay Lenz in a smaller part. I never seen her as a dramatic actress, and even if she's there to look good and show her boobs she's not bad at all. But I'm not buying that she might be interested in the 100 years older Quinn.
J. Lee Thompson here made his last really good movie. I think 10 to Midnight and The Evil That Men Do is good, and even King Solomon's Mines has its moments - but when a man ends his career with the deeply racist and boring Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects it feels like he should have retired earlier. In The Passage he gives us some good and violent action and an edgy handheld camera that feels slightly before its time, and I prefer to delete Kinjite from my memory and pretend he always was as good as in this movie.