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  Dangerous Moves Checkmate
Year: 1984
Director: Richard Dembo
Stars: Michel Piccoli, Alexandre Arbatt, Liv Ullmann, Leslie Caron, Wojciech Pszoniak, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Daniel Olbrychski, Hubert Saint-Macary, Michel Aumont, Pierre Michaël, Serge Avedikian, Pierre Vial, Bernhard Wicki, Jacques Boudet, Benoît Régent
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The latest International Chess Championship is being staged in Geneva between two very different Russian competitors. One is the elder, Akiva Liebskind (Michel Piccoli), a seasoned professional with a heart condition: he knows his time is nearly up, but nevertheless wants to go through with the matches due to his determination to remain the champion. His opponent is the temperamental young upstart Pavius Fromm (Alexandre Arbatt) who has taken the audacious move of defecting from the Soviet Union, a fact Liebskind is all too aware of. The powers that be insist that Fromm loses, but will the older man be up to the challenge?

A curious attempt to give chess the visceral excitement of a boxing match, Dangerous Moves, or La Diagonale du Fou as it was originally known, was only one of three films created and directed by Richard Dembo and was highly praised at the time. winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Time, however, marches on and the work looks now like a product of the Cold War and consequently not as tense as it might have, but then, chess is an intensely cerebral game and it is difficult to translate that into exciting cinema. Therefore, Dembo tended to rely on the politics surrounding his characters for the suspense.

The drama could have been more compelling if the two chess masters going head to head were from the Soviet Union and The United States, but by making them countrymen, albeit with one in exile, it all feels somewhat remote now. Maybe it did then, unless you were actually Russian in 1984 in which case you probably wouldn't have been allowed to see the film anyway because the efforts to derail Fromm's confidence and therefore sabotage his game are less than ethical, emotionally violent rather than physically damaging.

The matches themselves are played out in front of a huge board so the audience can see who is gaining the upper hand, but there's more to getting one over on your opponent than simply making the right move in the game. Fromm tries to put off Liebskind by arriving late and acting up, even stealing the old man's lucky pen at one point. In return, Liebskind makes official complaints but he also has the might of the Reds behind him, who snap Fromm's concentration by placing sinister figures in the audience to stare at him intimidatingly in peculiar hypnosis attempts.

The pity of it is that Liebskind simply wants an honest contest and the stress of having all these men in high places bringing all their might to bear on his game results in his heart problems getting worse, therefore jeopardising his chances. Fromm has his own problems when the wife he left behind, Marina (Liv Ullmann), is brought over to see him and she's in an even worse way psychologically than he is. The trouble with all this is not so much that you never get a handle on how the games are going until one is declared the winner, but that if you're not a dedicated player then you might well see Dangerous Moves as a storm in a teacup. And then there's the ending, which seems a let down after we wanted to see who was the best in a fair contest. Interesting, then, and well portrayed, but a bit of a relic. Music by Gabriel Yared.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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