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The Passage (1979)

Just prior to becoming a house director for Cannon Films, J. Lee Thompson, reunited with his Guns of Navarone leading man of 1961, Anthony Quinn, for another WW2 thriller. It’s actually their second collaboration in a row having just completed The Greek Tycoon in 1978. This time Zorba himself stars as a Basque mountaineer looking to lead a scientist and his family over the Pyrenees to safety from the grip of a maniacal SS officer played by Malcolm McDowell. Malcolm’s performance must be seen to fully appreciate just how thick he slices the ham.

Quinn is enlisted by a pair of resistance figthers, Michael Lonsdale and Marcel Bozzuffi, to get scientist, James Mason and his family, out of France. Quinn is reluctant to do so when he learns Mason refuses to leave his family behind. This includes a very fragile Patricia Neal as his wife and two adult children, Kay Lenz and Paul Clemens. Following a skirmish with SS officers, Quinn, kills and is committed to the job.

“I hope you’re worth it.”

We’re to see just how sadistic McDowell is going to play his SS officer when he interrogates Lonsdale who had been captured while Quinn escaped with Mason and co. If one has seen this film before than the McDowell/Lonsdale scene may be the one you’ll remember the most. It isn’t easily forgotten and harkens to the 70’s exploitation market of films dealing with torture. It’s bloody, stomach turning and thankfully the end result of which I’ll not disclose is left to one’s imagination. With this scene McDowell has clearly made a statement in just how far over the top he’s willing to go in this vulgar role. Sadly his depravities won’t stop there.

With Lonsdale’s disclosure of who Quinn is and what his intentions are the race is on between the aging screen legend and the upstart with Clockwork Orange on his resume. On the journey Quinn will enlist another screen legend for assistance. Christopher Lee turns up in an elongated cameo as the leader of a caravan of gypsies who for a price takes on the five passengers trying to elude the Nazi’s. Sadly for Sir Christopher it will lead to a nasty showdown with McDowell who continues to track Quinn towards the Pyrenees.

As the group are pushed by McDowell with little time for rest they begin their ascent into the mountains. Quinn has made it clear to Mason that if his family cannot keep up he’ll leave them to die where they fall. It won’t take viewers long to realize that the fragile Miss Neal won’t be making it over the mountain tops in a film that is fraught with scenes of degradation and vulgarity. She’ll make the ultimate sacrifice in a scene that just might get your heart beating fast and that annoying lump in your throat hard to keep down amidst all the carnage.

The chase will lead into the mountains and as I’ve always had a fondness for snowy landscapes on film combined with this cast of personal favorites assembled here I’ll admit to liking this film despite the numerous bad reviews it scored at the time of it’s release. I’ve left out much of the action and yes, Malcolm’s nauseous acts against all that is decent for you to discover on your own. While Macolm’s performance is the one that is sure to stand out for good or bad, watch the commanding presence of Anthony Quinn. At the time of the production Quinn was 64 and I dare say he was far more believable than any action hero a film like this would have been saddled with today. One with a washboard stomach who gives off an air of indestructibility. Quinn acted sporadically over the next 20 years and while never out of work he never scored what I would call a Burt Lancaster like role in Atlantic City and that’s unfortunate. I’ve been a Quinn fan since I was old enough to recognize him in those old black and white Warner Brother movies or as an Indian fighting Joel McCrea’s Buffalo Bill.

Old pro Mason doesn’t have too much to do other than look concerned and follow Quinn while poor Miss Neal looks all too real as a fragile woman awaiting certain death. Where Kay Lenz is concerned I’ve got to say I’ve always been a fan going back to seeing her in White Line Fever as a youngster but this role is rather thankless and I kind of felt bad for her as an actress taking on the part. I won’t go any further into that comment but if you’ve seen the film than you’ll know specifically what I’m referring to.

For those that are still collecting blu rays like yours truly, The Passage, was put out by Kino/Scorpion Releasing a couple years ago and included on the disc is a 30 minute interview with Malcolm McDowell. This alone makes the purchase worthwhile. McDowell never fails to entertain me when interviewed and reminiscing about past movies and the people he met and worked with. He points out that Quinn was a “force of nature” and that he based his SS officer on a comedy act. He claims J. Lee Thompson loved what he was doing rolling every Nazi performance he’d ever seen into one over the top characterization that was mostly improvised and his memories include funny bits on Lee and Mason. Always cheerful he points out how this performance scored him some of his best notices and at the same time some of his worst. (I find it irresistible even if his deeds are hard to stomach)

I should also note the range of roles McDowell had in release in 1979. Not only did he have his SS officer terrorizing Jews and Gypsies but he had Caligula bringing Rome to ruin and for me his most endearing role as H.G. Wells in Time After Time. On The Passage he admits, “Sadly I’ve done a lot worse. They can’t all be gems.”

A gem this one might not be but that won’t stop me from someday giving the film another go to see Quinn’s tower of strength versus McDowell’s portrait in evil. The poster? Well I just had to have one.

14 Comments »

  1. Funny, I don’t remember this one at all in theaters, and 1979 was the year I really started going to a lot of movies, with a four-plex just down the road that was close enough to walk to. It looks like an interesting story and an entertaining film, based on the trailer I just watched, but you can also tell how far to the hilt McDowell plays his character!

    • Yeah I guess I’m surprised you don’t recall this one even from a TV showing. In heavily edited form. Hard to deny the cast and for me that’s always a big plus from my early years of movie discovery. Yup, McDowell worth the price of admission just to see what he was capable of bringing to the role. Like it or not.

  2. I remember this movie very well. I got to see it first in its television edited for and then later in its full form on Showtime. But, even with the heavy edit version you still caught the horror of what it was like to be under the rule of Nazis. Some of the cruelest scenes were done with a less-is-more technique that implied rather than shown. The fact that you fully knew what was happening and the revulsion you felt only speaks to the strength of the movie.

  3. The cast and J. Lee Thompson enticed me to this when it was showing in a cineplex. Agreed, McDowell was over the top here. Somehow the film was quite a disappointment, not that exciting. Have not gone back for it since then. Best regards.

    • It’s worth looking into. And it could go either way. I have no problem with someone despising the film as some do and that’s mainly due to McDowell and then some love it for the exact same reason. I also like the material and again that wintery setting.

  4. I recorded The Passage off of one of the movie channels some time ago, then, after several months and I still hadn’t watched it, I deleted it. I remember being especially intrigued by the cast. I regret deleting it, because it doesn’t look like it’s available on any of the streaming services I have access to. Going to have to keep an eye out for it.

    • My collection is so large and I’ll collect pretty much anything but it’s such a personal choice of themes, artwork or stars for so many. I guess it would depend on what your own interests are. I switch my office poster each month where I work. This month I’ve hung When Time Ran Out. Not the greatest flick but I love the artwork.

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