IT'S hard to think of a better theme song for Robert Redford's movie ``Quiz Show'' than the Brecht-Weill classic ``Mack the Knife,'' which tells of a cutthroat who became a folk hero. Just about everyone in ``Quiz Show'' is either a corporate cutthroat, an intellectual schemer, or someone who's been duped.
For the most part, these people have prim-and-proper backgrounds. Their ambitions, even the motives they put forth - to themselves as well as others - serve as justifications for their dubious doings. But there's no excusing the mendacity of their activities or the dangers they pose to the public they claim to serve. No wonder the credits are accompanied by Bobby Darin's tuneful description of Mack wearing ``fancy gloves'' while wielding his knife, so he'll never be spotted with a ``trace of red'' that might proclaim his guilt.
Not that an ounce of blood is spilled in ``Quiz Show,'' which focuses on media rather than physical skulduggery. The main character is Charles Van Doren, the Columbia University instructor who gained fame and fortune in the late 1950s by answering questions on the popular ``Twenty-One'' quiz show - dazzling millions of budding TV addicts who didn't know the program's producers were coaching him to success every step of the way.
Redford's film presents Van Doren as a slightly reluctant wrongdoer, starting his TV career with good intentions but falling prey to three enemies lurking within his own moral landscape: a weakness for easy winnings, the notion that nobody was really being harmed, and insecurity, which renders him vulnerable through a barely acknowledged rivalry with his intellectually gifted dad.
He becomes America's darling, and while twinges of guilt occasionally nag him, he distances them with half-baked gestures - such as asking the producers to stop giving him the answers in advance, but to supply only the questions, so he can look up the answers for himself.
This sort of silliness obviously can't last, and his wobbly pride leads to a mighty big fall, including a public mea culpa before a congressional investigation and a TV-watching world.
Van Doren's story would make for compulsive viewing even if it weren't rooted in historical fact. Lending more drama to Redford's account is a string of secondary figures almost as compelling as Van Doren himself. One is Dick Goodwin, a Washington lawyer ``out to get'' TV and advance his own career. Another is Mark Van Doren, the contestant's father and a dedicated thinker with his own measure of fame. Most interesting of all is Herbert Stempel, an earlier ``Twenty-One'' contestant whose agreement to take a dive on Van Doren's behalf is followed by fury at being seduced by show biz.
These and other characters are played with energy and wit by an excellent cast. Ralph Fiennes, so memorable as the Nazi commandant in ``Schindler's List,'' gives Van Doren exactly the right mixture of intellectual strength, ethical frailty, and regular-guy attractiveness. John Turturro deftly plays Stempel as a tightly wrapped bundle of endearing, aggravating, and downright irritating traits. Rob Morrow makes the investigative attorney both credible and appealing, although his Boston accent is shaky. Paul Scofield brings his years of dignity and experience to portraying Van Doren's elegant father. Elizabeth Wilson and Mira Sorvino make the most of small roles in a decidedly male-dominated film.
Despite such assets, however, ``Quiz Show'' is never the first-rate movie it sets out to be. The fault lies in basic decisions made by the filmmakers. Paul Attanasio's screenplay is full of dramatic moments, revealing ironies, and amusing one-liners. Yet its structure is disappointingly conventional - basically a detective story, as the lawyer tracks down the ``Twenty-One'' deception. The film fails to delve deeply into the profound links between TV mendacity and American mass psychology in the pivotal '50s.
Redford has also made questionable choices in directing the picture. He rarely lets his camera explore or contemplate the story, but cuts nearly all the action into a bombardment of heavily edited bits and pieces. What could have been a fully-rounded character study becomes a stitched-together series of comic or dramatic bits, with little chance for the performers to knit their portrayals into a truly interactive ensemble. The result is far from disastrous, but it's a lot less engrossing than it might have been.
In technical terms, ``Quiz Show'' is always presentable and rarely distinguished. Michael Ballhaus's camera work is a shade below his usual high level, and Mark Isham's music has few standout moments. The production design by Jon Hutman and the costumes by Kathy O'Rear are fun to watch, if overeager for a conspicuously '50s-ish look. Stu Linder did the hyperactive editing.
* ``Quiz Show'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains occasional vulgar language.