Grandmasters face off in `Dangerous Moves'

DANGEROUS Moves,'' a French production starring Michel Piccoli, has arrived in the United States a few months after winning the Oscar for best foreign-language movie of 1984. The subject is chess, and the main characters are grandmasters battling in Geneva for the world championship. Both are Russian, and both have habits or histories that recall real-life chess players of recent years. But that's where their similarities end. The defending champ is a Soviet citizen. The eager challenger is a defector, and a bitter one. Adding more complication, the defector's wife is still in Russia, and he fears for her safety. Against this turbulent background, the two men face off over a chessboard and try to psych each other out.

Chess is a good subject for a movie, if you don't mind all the closeups of furrowed brows and nervous fingers hovering over pawns and rooks. The competition scenes in this film may not impress fans of the game, since they generally scoot from the first move to the last, blithely leaving out everything in between. And some of the plot twists are drawn out much too long. But if you enjoy a head-on clash of personalities, ``Dangerous Moves'' has plenty of built-in suspense, skillfully developed by director Richard Dembo.

It also sports a good cast headed by Piccoli and featuring Alexandre Arbatt -- an actual Soviet defector -- as the challenger. Leslie Caron and Liv Ullmann are among the colorful supporting players, and the great Raoul Coutard was the cinematographer. Shooting Party'

``The Shooting Party'' falls into a familiar genre: bittersweet drama about the decline of the British aristocracy. It has few surprises to offer, but the production is strong and the performances are beguiling.

The year is 1913 and World War I is just around the corner. The main characters -- members of the upper crust -- sense that their way of life is heading toward a crisis but can't quite admit it to themselves. The movie examines them during a weekend of hunting, dining, and flirting on a landowner's estate. Also on hand are servants and other plebeians who have their own mixed feelings about the changes ahead.

If this sounds like a rustic version of ``Upstairs, Downstairs,'' you're on the right track. ``The Shooting Party'' has the same civilized tone and the same hints of sadness below the surface. There's even a servant played by Gordon Jackson, the marvelous actor who portrayed Hudson the butler in the TV series.

What distinguishes ``The Shooting Party'' is its concise approach. It sums up a whole historical period with its simple story, which focuses on a rivalry between two so-called gentlemen. The settings and costumes seem right in every detail, and the acting is top drawer.

As the men with the feud, James Fox and Rupert Frazer understate their parts with a fine sense of nuance. Just as good are Judi Bowker and Cheryl Campbell as two of the society wives.

And the late James Mason gives one of his best performances as the host of the party, a sly but weary old codger who's willing to say what everybody fears -- namely, that their idle class will soon be a thing of the past. There's an especially amusing scene when Mason confronts John Gielgud, who plays an eccentric do-gooder. It looks like they'll have a terrific fight over the rights of hunters vs. the rights of animals; but they bog down in a fussy conversation about the difference between a polemic and a tirade.

``The Shooting Party'' jokes about words like that, but it cares about language, too. Directed by Alan Bridges and written by Julian Bond from an Isabel Colegate novel, it's a literate movie that lends a touch of class to this largely lackluster season. -- 30 --

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