Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Home Vision Entertainment's latest offering from progressive producer Arthur Cohn
(Black and White in Color) is
a clever cold-war tale that uses a championship chess match as a battleground. Good
direction and restrained performances back up a finely-tuned script, that keeps
interest high as two Chess Masters try to compete amid international skullduggery. Leslie
Caron, Liv Ullman and especially Michel Piccoli (surely France's most underrated star in
America) aquit themselves well.
Geneva, 1984. Soviet pride descends on a World Championship of Chess
between the Soviet master Akiva Liebskind (Michel Piccoli) and Master Pavius Fromm (Alexandre
Arbatt), a defector to the West. Liebskind encouraged Fromm as a small boy back in Russia; now
both want the championship in a highly politicized arena. Akiva's health is failing, and he's
upset that his Moscow heart specialist has been denied a visa - the rest of the doctor's family
is already in Israel. His wife Henia (Leslie Caron) is a calming influence, but in the pressure
of the games, Akiva starts smoking again. Fromm is paranoid about KGB agents and wiretaps, and
distrusts his own handlers; he arrives late at each game in a sassy attempt to unnerve Liebskind.
But Liebskind's team is getting help from the KGB - not only are they trying to disrupt Fromm's
concentration, they bring the defector's mentally unstable wife Marina (Liv Ullman) from Russia
to further knock him off his game.
Written and directed by a talented fellow I've only seen associated with Opera, Dangerous
Moves is a blah title for a clever and civilized little thriller, that keeps an interesting
perspective on its twists and turns. The stakes here are prestige and glory, but the machinations
are as serious as if lives were at stake.
What's special about Dangerous Moves is the way it stays focused on a game that remains
interesting, even to those of us who know nothing about Chess. 1
The various coaches continually
talk about variations and opening strategies, but there's no need to pay attention to anything
except the jist of their words, unless Chess is your thing. We quickly become aware of the
relationship between player performance and all the behind-the-scene agitation. Neither chess master
realizes how precarious his emotional position is.
Billed as a cold-war thriller, this really isn't about East vs West, but instead East vs Dissident
East. The blatant malice of the Russian spies is nicely summed up when a particularly ruthless
agent cooly approves of Liv Ullmann's expressed hatred for him: "As well you should."
The chess stragegies stay vague, but not the backstage maneuverings. Pavius Fromm challenges the
honesty of his own handlers, and we see one freelance chess coach who is trying to operate as
a double agent. Fromm's biggest worry is that the Russians will pull the ailing Liebskind from
the match before allowing him to be beaten fair and square. In the most amusing scene, each side
brings in disruptive audience members to psych-out the other player.
Just as chess players think in the multi-dimensions of future moves, the schemers have to weigh the
possible consequences of their actions. The KGB shows its desperation by finally allowing
Akiva's doctor to go to Geneva. Their decision to bring Pavius' estranged wife Marina is the wildest
ploy - Pavius had been told she wanted a divorce, but didn't know what to believe. Now she's used
as a wedge to upset her husband, and there's nothing either can do about it. But their forced
separation is the real source of Pavius' anxieties - her presence also might give him
RIchard Dembo's assured, no-fuss direction doesn't reach for the Big Scenes, but instead focuses our
attention down to a level where individual details have big effects. It becomes an actor's film. As
the cocky younger player, Alexandre Arbatt begins as a blonde pretty-boy but soon progresses into
a more complicated professional, highly aware of the pressures of being a thorn in the side of the
KGB. Michel Piccoli is utterly charming as the normally serene grand master, reacting involuntarily
to the dirty tricks of his own handlers. His comfortable relationship with Leslie Caron's supportive
wife is particularly believable, even though it requires that Caron stay mostly on the sidelines. Liv
Ullmann has the interesting job of playing an emotional wreck who still has the judgment to resist
the men forcing her to disturb her husband's game; we stay concerned about what will happen to her.
Best of all, nothing in Dangerous Moves is particularly conventional. Things never devolve
into threats or thriller spy action, yet the tension builds just the same. Then ending also involves
a reconciliation that tells the real truth about both players. Dangerous Moves is a modest
but satisfying thriller.
HVe's DVD of Dangerous Moves is presented full-length in a sharp enhanced transfer with no
visible signs of wear or deterioration. Producer Cohn appears in an interview extra about
his approach to producing films; observant liner notes are provided by Ronald Falzone, relating
the film to its specific place in the 1980's climate of deténte.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dangerous Moves rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with producer Arthur Cohn
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2003
1. The French title is
La Diagonale du fou, which might be a name for one of the chess maneuvers mentioned in the
film. I can't tell if Chess addicts would feel rewarded; the film doesn't really concentrate on
the actual board moves for more than a few moments here and there.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson