'Harry, a first rate French thriller

The distributors of With a Friend Like Harry... originally translated its French title as "Harry, He is Here to Help," but the new moniker of this first-rate French movie is more on target for American audiences. It crisply conveys the thriller's basic premise: With a friend like Harry, you don't need enemies.

The first character we meet is Michel, a mild-mannered teacher with a wife and three young daughters, whom he's driving to southern France for a vacation. They stop at a roadside restaurant where a friendly but unfamiliar face comes up to greet Michel, recalling the great times they had when they were in school together.

The newcomer's name is Harry, and as their conversation continues, he's shocked to discover that Michel has never cultivated the great writing talent he had as a student. Surely he could do so now if he just had some assistance with his family and financial problems?

Michel is flattered by Harry's attention, but also puzzled. He's not sure he remembers this allegedly close pal of bygone years.

Automobile trouble prolongs the odd encounter - it's hard to turn down Harry's offer of a ride in his comfortable car - and soon Harry is offering to help Michel in ways Michel neither needs nor wants. Is this peculiar school chum the generous supporter he claims to be?

Director Dominik Moll stretches out our suspense with a skill Alfred Hitchcock would surely have admired. The movie's effectiveness also gains from excellent performances by Laurent Lucas as Michel and especially Spanish actor Sergi Lopez as Harry, one of the most tantalizing characters to arrive on movie screens so far this century.

"With a Friend Like Harry..." was a solid winner in the most recent round of Cesar awards - director Moll and star Lopez both picked up prizes in this French equivalent of the Academy Awards race - and American audiences should be as captivated by the story as the 2 million French viewers who have flocked to it. With a movie like this ... you don't need Hollywood.

The outlook isn't so bright for The Luzhin Defence, directed by Marleen Gorris, who won an Oscar for her feminist drama "Antonia's Line" five years ago.

John Turturro plays Alexander Luzhin, a Bobby Fisher-type chess master whose brilliance with knights and pawns is offset by an insecure, even bumbling approach to other aspects of life. He visits an Italian resort to play an important match, but gets unexpectedly involved with a beautiful Russian woman who falls for him even though her aristocratic parents have a handsome count already picked out for her.

Luzhin copes with this distraction as badly as we might expect. This is partly because he's so unworldly, and partly because his childhood was disrupted by his parents' unhappy marriage. The movie's mild suspense grows from the question of how he'll handle the conflicts he's facing between past and present, love and work, personal obsessions and romantic possibilities.

Turturro is a gifted actor who can be brilliant ("Do the Right Thing") or the opposite ("Mo' Better Blues," "The Sicilian"), depending on how well a role suits his talent. "The Luzhin Defence" brings out the mannered side of his style, making us more aware of his acting maneuvers than of his character's inner life.

Based on a minor novel by Vladimir Nabokov, one of the world's greatest tale-spinners, "The Luzhin Defence" never quite scores a checkmate on the screen.

'With a Friend Like Harry...,' rated R, contains sex and violence. 'The Luzhin Defence,' rated PG-13, contains sexual material.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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