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Dangerous Moves

Dangerous Moves(1984)

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It makes perfect sense that, during the Cold War years, chess analogies were the preferred shorthand for describing world political struggles. The Cold War - a now-quaint time when The Bomb was wielded mainly by America and Russia - called for subtle maneuvering, since each action might incur a reaction that could lead to the beginning of the end of the world. Chess, with its endless machinations and surprise traps, seemed a fitting metaphor for this high-stakes standoff between two stubborn Super Powers.

It's important to keep that in mind while watching Dangerous Moves, a chess-as-politics drama that was released while The Soviet Union was still viewed as the world's schoolyard bully (cast your own vote as to who gets the honor these days.) Metaphors, however, can only take you so far. Though it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1984, Dangerous Moves could have used a less explicitly allegorical script. If you're not a chess player, the match sequences might also generate bemused shrugs rather than gasps.

The meat of the story takes place in Geneva, Switzerland in 1984. After a bit of tactical hemming and hawing, two brilliant chess champions agree to confront each other on an international stage. Akiva Liebskind (the quietly assured Michel Piccoli), an aging master with a bad heart, will challenge Pavius Fromm (Alexandre Arbatt), a cocky young defector who's now living in the West. Fromm learned the game from Liebskind when he was growing up in Russia. Now, these two former allies will play sophisticated mind games - and even a little chess - as they strive to gain supremacy over one another.

Those mind games are where most of the fun lies in Dangerous Moves, since writer-director Richard Dembo conveys the political angle with such thudding blatancy: Liebskind, in particular, is prone to saying things like "If you want to beat your opponent, study the games he lost" and "In chess, threats are more serious than actions." It doesn't take long to get the point, but this sort of thing keeps up throughout the movie. The audience is seldom trusted to make its own connections.

Mentally, Fromm gets worked over harder than Liebskind, since the KGB is doing its part to unnerve him. At one point, they even bring his unstable wife (Liv Ullman, who's underused here) to the match, just to see if she'll throw him for a loop. Though he's in ill health, at least Liebskind's wife (Leslie Caron) is a calming influence. It's somewhat amazing that we don't get deeper into the psyches of the two players, since brain power - and emotional vigor - is at the core of master-level chess. By the time the movie is over, most people will simply feel metaphored to death.

Home Vision Entertainment's DVD release of Dangerous Moves is a solid little package that isn't likely to make anyone hyperventilate. The 16x9 transfer was made from a high definition transfer, and the colors are acceptably vivid. It's a nice print, not that the photography is anything special. There's also a brief interview with the film's producer, Arthur Cohn, who leans toward politically-charged stories (he also produced Black and White in Color and One Day in September), and an informative two-page essay by film historian Ronald Falzone.

For more information about Dangerous Moves, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Dangerous Moves, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara