Ostensibly a chase thriller set against the majesty of the Pyrenees, "The Passage" stars Anthony Quinn surviving yet another godforsaken pot-boiler. This time he's an intrepid Basque shepherd hired by the Resistance to guide James Mason, a fugitive scientisit or intellectual or something, acorss the mountains to safety. A fiendish SS officer played by Malcolm McDowell is on their trail, spreading atrocities wherever he goes for the sheer fun of it.

At this stage of their careers Quinn and Mason might find it difficult to beat a hasty retreat under the best of circumstances. Their progress is further retarded by the tedious cunning of writer Bruce Nicolaysen, who brings the fugitive's wife and children along and gets the pursuit so tangled up that the old show never quite gets on the road.

McDowell seems to relish the opportunity to impersonate a fantastic degenerate. He's certainly the most stylized and uninhibited sickie since Don Sutherland in "1900." It appears that McDowell has improvised huge chunks of the role.

At one point McDowell conducts a torture session in a kitchen. With a chef's hat on his head and an Iron Cross pinned to his apron, McDowell torments his prisoner with witticisms-"Why do you think we're conquering France? We're out to steal your recipes"-and then pretends to dice up the door wretch's fingertips for a ragout-in-progress.

Another typically crazed interclude begins with McDowell overlooking Mason while searching a gypsy caravan but dragging off Masonhs daughter, Kay Lenz, to satisfy his unspeakable lust. Stripping down, McDowell coyle drops his trousers to reveal a jock-strap with a swastika emblazoned on the front. Inspirations like this will no doubt hasten the movie's certification as a camp classic.

While McDowell amuses himself torturing and killing people, Quinn keeps urging his slow-footed, belly-aching charges to get the lead out. As Masonhs infirm wife, Patricia Neal finally gives out and lies down to die pitcuresquely in a snow bank after kissing her sleeping family farewell. Learning that Quinn has failed to prevent her from making this noble sacrifice, Mason threatens to punch him out but slips and falls in the snow instead.Quinn frowns sympathetically, perhaps pondering the curios indiginities that a long acting career is bound to bring.

The continuity has a meanwhile back-a-the-ranch desperation that is habitually resolved by confusing or preposterous outbreaks of violence. The level of invention is so pitiful that McDowell is briefly brough back from the dead for a menacing encore after being knocked off in a ludicrous manner, apparently buried in an avalanche he starts himself by shooting repeatedly up a snowy peak.

The director, J. Lee Thompson, was once a proficient craftsman. Not all that long ago he and Quinn were associated on the prestigious hit "The Guns of Navarone." You can't help wondering what they, along with Mason and Neal, talked about between the takes of this howler.