Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Passage (1979)

          Yet another lurid adventure flick set in occupied Europe during World War II, The Passage is mildly fascinating for what it lacks—depth and restraint. The plot is so thin that it can be described in one sentence without excluding any significant details: Members of the French resistance ask a farmer living near the French-Spanish border to help an American scientist and his family reach safety while a psychotic SS officer chases after them. That’s the whole storyline, give or take a couple of incidental characters, and the preceding synopsis also describes nearly everything we learn about the characters. Especially considering that the script was written by a novelist adapting his own work—a gentleman named Bruce Nicolaysen—it’s astonishing to encounter a narrative this underdeveloped.
          Furthermore, director J. Lee Thompson, a veteran who by this point in his career seemed content cranking out mindless potboilers, lets actors do whatever the hell they want. In some cases, as with sexy supporting player Kay Lenz, this translates to bored non-acting, and in others, as with main villain Maclolm McDowell, the permissiveness results in outrageous over-acting. Alternating between bug-eyed malevolence and effeminate delicacy, McDowell presents something that’s not so much a performance as a compendium of bad-guy clichés; he’s entertaining in weird moments like his revelation of a swastika-festooned jockstrap, but it seems Thompson never asked McDowell to rein in his flamboyance.
          That said, The Passage is quite watchable if one accepts the movie on its trashy terms. The simplistic plot ensures clarity from beginning to end (notwithstanding the lack of a satisfactory explanation for the scientist’s importance), and Thompson fills the screen with energetic camerawork, nasty violence, and, thanks to Lenz, gratuitous nudity. It should also be noted that leading man Anthony Quinn, who plays the farmer, invests his scenes with macho angst, and that costar James Mason, as the scientist, elevates his scenes with crisp diction and plaintive facial expressions. (The cast also includes Christopher Lee, as a gypsy helping the fugitives, and Patricia Neal, as the scientist’s frail wife.) Even more noteworthy than any of the performances, however, is the gonzo finale, during which Thompson’s style briefly transforms from indifferent to insane—for a few strange moments, The Passage becomes a gory horror show. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)

The Passage: FUNKY

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