Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 12, 2021)
Four years before he created the influential hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Melvin Van Peebles made his feature film debut. Unable to get anywhere in Hollywood, Van Peebles went to France to create 1967’s The Story of a Three Day Pass.
Black American Turner (Harry Baird) serves in France at a US air base. His racist commander Captain Lutz (Hal Brav) views him condescendingly as a “good obedient Negro”, so Turner gets both a token promotion and a three day leave pass.
Turner uses this time to visit Paris, where he embarks on a brisk romance with white Frenchwoman Miriam (Nicole Berger). In addition to the personal connection between this pair, we view the repercussions Turner experiences back at the base.
Sweetback offered my first experience with a Van Peebles film. To say it didn’t go well would act as an understatement, for while I respect its place in cinematic history, I found the end result to seem borderline unwatchable.
This led me into Pass with lowered expectations, of course, and the film’s “indie” roots meant I didn’t think I’d much get into it as well. A “French New Wave” influenced effort from a neophyte filmmaker didn’t bode well.
As such, I can’t call Pass a disappointment. On the other hand, I also can’t claim the movie becomes an especially compelling experience.
My summary gives the plot more dimensionality than we actually get, as Pass tends to provide a loose narrative structure at best. An impressionistic affair, much of the film feels like a long music video as we follow Turner through the streets and dance clubs of Paris.
This means no one should expect much of a character affair here. Turner remains sketchily depicted at best, and we learn next to nil about Miriam.
Racism becomes a sporadic theme, though not to the degree one might expect. Much of Pass seems like a precursor to 1995’s Before Sunrise, though without the latter’s long character conversations, as our leads barely chat.
Neither side of Pass works all that well. As mentioned, we don’t get to know the leads in a fulfilling manner, which may’ve been intentional, as perhaps Van Peebles wanted to keep them as vague to the audience as they are to each other.
This makes more sense in terms of Miriam, for it seems logical that the viewer only knows her as well as Turner does. However, it feels less sensible for Turner himself. We see the movie almost entirely from his point of view, so superior exposition would make the film work better.
As for the racial angle, it pops up sporadically. We see how Turner’s literal reflection in the mirror mocks and criticizes him, and we also view “fantasy” moments in which he imagines different scenarios.
These vary in terms of how well they work. Some seem far too cartoony and obvious, but others impart the tone nicely.
In particular, a sequence in which Turner and Miriam rent a hotel room becomes the movie’s highlight. After many shots in which ebullient music accompanies our characters, Van Peebles strips the score from the film, a move that automatically connotes a more serious tone.
The desk clerk doesn’t come across as obviously racist, but the absence of music gives the scene an ominous tone, and the employee’s attitude conveys just enough condescension to add impact. This becomes almost certainly the movie’s best segment.
Unfortunately, Van Peebles undercuts matters almost immediately when the characters get to the hotel room. As Turner spies the only bed – with the connotation that he’s gonna get some – Van Peebles elects to give the bed a triumphant glow and a perky musical flourish.
This relates to probably the biggest issue with Pass: its awkward shifts in tone. Van Peebles bites off a lot – romance, drama, social criticism, comedy – and he fails to find a good way to integrate all these elements into one fairly seamless package.
Still, as erratic as Pass can be, it does show promise, as the movie offers glimmers of cinematic potential. I can’t call it an especially good movie, but it occasionally shines.