Tag Archives: chess

Three movies based on true stories

I think that site there are a few too many speeches about the necessity of a free press in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 “The Post,” but even knowing the outcome(s), the movie is something of a thriller. And the lesson of those speeches is more than relevant, as Spielberg and everyone else associated with the movie knew. It can be seen as a prequel to “All the President’s Men,” with the break-in to Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate at the end of the movie.


The newsroom in the movie looks very big. I don’t really remember how it looked in “All the President’s Men,” which occurred after the Washington Post moved, after standing up to Nixon and taking up published the Pentagon Papers after the New York Times was enjoined against publication. Both papers took the matter to the Supreme Court, and won 6-3.

Post owner/publisher Katharine (Kate) Graham had a lot to lose, beyond the risk of prison for publishing top-secret documents. She was taking the company private, and the IPO was seriously threatened by her decision to publish.

Meryl Streep is exceptional, even for Meryl Streep, in capturing the tentativeness of Graham thrust into being in charge of a newspaper as well as courageous decision to go ahead as her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), wanted and the financial and legal advisors did not wa

The way what Graham says (despite her being the owner) is ignored until or unless said by a man is even more relevant this month than it was last year.

In addition to Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance (surely, she would have won had she not already won so often!) and Hanks’s very solid one, there is fine work from many others, including actors Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessie Mueller, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, and Bruce Greenwood (who looks very much like Robert MacNamara), cinematographer Janusz Kamiski, costume designer Ann Roth (The Hours, The English Patient, the Mildred Pierce miniseries), and Spielberg himself who brings out the best in his collaborators (Hanks for the fifth time, btw, and Kamiski has been Oscar nominated for five Spielberg films, winning for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Pvt. Ryan”).

The 1971 technology (rotary-dial phones, manual typewriters, and a Xerox machine borrowed from the Xerox museum) it very impressive, as is seeing how the newspapers were physically made.

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Michael Stuhlbarg had an even more major role as Bobby Fischer’s (CIA?) handler, Paul Marshall, in “Pawn Sacrifice” (2014) with Tobey Maguire and Peter Sarsgard (as the mentor/priest Father Bill Lombardy) against the Soviet juggernaut and world champion Boris Spassky (played with confidence turning into paranoia by Liev Schrieber). Edward Zwick managed to make the story of the 1972 Fischer/Spassky duel in Iceland suspenseful, though its outcome is widely known (though perhaps less widely known than the newspapers’ victory in publishing the Pentagon Papers). Both are also Cold War stories, with the chess players being pawns of the regimes competing for prestige rather the lethal fire of the opening sequence of “The Post” in which Ellsberg is along on a patrol that is ambushed by the Viet Cong. As for what happened on the chessboard, the movie would better have been titled “Knight Sacrifice,” but clearly the flamboyant Fischer (1943-2008) and Spassky (born 1937) are the titular paws.

(Nixon is shown rooting for Fischer with Henry Kissinger; real White House tape-recordings were used by Spielberg, though Nixon had not specifically ordering the break-in to Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office by the “plumbers” (Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, et al.) who broke into the Watergate office.wait.jpg

The documentary “Wait for Your Laugh” (2017) has numerous mobsters, including Bugsy Siegel, who opened the Las Vegas Flamingo with Jimmy Durante and Rose Marie (1923-2017). The historical recreation scenes look vintage film, though the real vintage film are “home movies” Rose Marie took on sets of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Gunsmoke” (site of her first tv role after decades of being a singer and becoming a comic onstage).

Both when I saw the original airings and recently watching many on Netflix, I wished there was more office (Rose Marie, Morrie Amsterdam, Richard Deacon) less home in New Rochelle (Mary Tyler Moore and the kid who was originally billed above her, Larry Matthews). Rose Marie made the same argument with writer-producer (and sometimes actor) Carl Reiner. Rose Marie, Reiner, Van Dyke, writer-director Jason Wise, and documentary narrator Peter Marshall were on hand for a post-screening discussion and Q&A in which Rose Marie at the age of 93 was somewhat deaf, but mentally sharp with her comic timing intact.

Like that of “The Post,” the disc of “Wait for Your Laugh” is loaded with bonus features. Beginning as a deep-voiced four-year-old imitating Sophie Tucker, “Baby” Rose Marie had a show business career lasting 87 years. She brought out protective feelings from various mobsters, including Al Capone, and had a long tenure on “Holywood Squares” (hosted by Marshall), appeared as Frank Fontana’s mom on a few “Murphy Brown” episodes; earlier in 50 episodes of “The Doris Day Show”; and much earlier in 10 episodes of “The Bob Cummings Show” (“Love That Bob”).

Though Tony-nominated in the stage “Top Banana” (a Phil Silvers vehicle) her musical numbers were cut from the movie (perhaps partly to please Silvers, but in her view punishment for resisting producer Albert Zugsmith’s sexual advances). She adored Jimmy Durante and Rosemary Clooney, found Al Jolson very nasty, and found Helen O’Connell impossible in the long-running “4 Girls 4.” The film also documents the love of her life, trumpeter Bobby Guy (who dies in 1964; they had married in 1946). As a child star, her father took all the money she earned. So, it has everything. Most importantly, it had Rose Marie telling stories from her life and career.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray



Stefan Zweig’s chess story

The novella Schachnovelle (which means ”The Royal Game,” a label for chess), the last fiction written by once internationally renowned and best-selling Austrian Jewish biographer and novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) has been reprinted in English as The Chess Game by the New York Review Books. Zweig had gotten out of his beloved Vienna in 1934, shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany and before Austria was annexed in the Third Reich. In 1940 he and his new wife (heretofore secretary) the much younger Lotte Altmann moved on to New York City and then to Petropolis in Brazil, where they committed suicide (by veronal (a barbiturate) overdose) on February 23, 1942.


The Royal Game/Chess Story is the only fiction by Zweig to include any notice of the Nazi reign of terror. Its victim in the book, Dr. B., is not Jewish but is a banker like Zweig’s mother’s family, and a royalist, though it is not clear to me whether of the Hapsburgs (in Austria) or Hohenzollern (Prussian-German) royal house deposed by defeat in the First World War. His family has also discreetly managed to get many of the assets of Roman Catholic institutions beyond reach of Nazi expropriation.


Though not physically brutalized by the Gestapo — more interested in finding and seizing wealth than in punishing those loyal to vanished empires, Dr. B. was driven crazy by being kept in solitary confinement when not being interrogated. He managed to steal a book that laid out 150 classic chess matches and honed his chess skills by repeating them over and over and then starting to play himself: a black self and a white self that could not know what the other was thinking in the way of chess strategy (schizogenesis).

Dr. B. does not appear until nearly midway through the book. He tells his story to a curious traveler on the same slow boat to South America as the narrator, who had been trying to meet and assess the reigning world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic, a Slavic peasant who was illiterate and slow-witted, but had a talent for chess. (Czentovic is a kind of idiot savant and, perhaps, a metaphor for mindless battling of Hitler’s army, except that he is Slavic rather than “Aryan.)

A rich American chess aficionado named McConnor (a Scottish engineer who had gotten rich in California) wants to see a grand mater in action and for a fee of $250 (that’s 1941 dollars!) engages the master to play multiple simultaneous games. There is only one chessboard on the ship and Czentovic instead plays a committee. He is about to win a second game, when a bystander (Dr. B) starts offering advise that brings the game to a draw.

Dr. B has not physically played chess since he was a schoolboy, decades earlier, and does not know how he will perform in public (though he has impressed. Czentovic and the kibitzers as a sort of chess-playing ventriloquist). Thinking each side’s moves many moves in advance, Czentrovic taking the full allotment of ten minutes before each move (even the first one in the second game) is torture for Dr. B.

Herman Hesse was dismayed that only the pain and suffering of his 1927 novel Steppenwolf seemed to be noticed by readers, not the hope of redemption in the book. It seems to me the same despondent reading of Chess Story has been prevalent, in part in the shadow of the despair with the destruction of his civilization that drove Zweig to suicide after sending off the manuscript. (Why I am reading writers in German of much fame between the world wars now, I don’t know. The times here seemed more analogous to the late-1930s and early-1940s to me during the mid-2000s, when I was reading many stories about collaboration.)

The NYR edition includes an appreciative introduction by the distinguished Yale University historian (born in Berlin in 1923, got out in 1939), Peter Gay (The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Enlightenment; plus Mozart, Weimar Culture, Schnitzler’s Century, My German Question, and many books) I think it reveals too much of the plot of the slender volume and should be read after rather than before Zweig’s text, though the first part about Zweig provides a good introduction to the author, whose works revived by New York Review books so far include Confusion, The Post-Office Girl, Journey into the Past and Beware of Pity.


©2014, Stephen O. Murray