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Dangerous Moves

Dangerous Moves
Home Vision Entertainment
1984 / color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 95, 110 min. / La Diagonale du fou /Street Date June 24, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Michel Piccoli, Alexandre Arbatt, Liv Ullmann, Leslie Caron, Wojciech Pszoniak, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Daniel Olbrychski
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Art Direction Ivan Maussion
Film Editor Agnès Guillemot
Original Music Gabriel Yared
Produced by Arthur Cohn, Martine Marignac
Written and Directed by Richard Dembo

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 added strength.

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.

(semi spoiler)

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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