I’ve known about this movie forever and that it was supposed to be good, but I never really knew that much about it – I think I thought it was some comedy about folks going on quiz shows or something. Well, it is about people on quiz shows, but not so much a comedy. It’s a real-life story of a 1950s quiz show scandal involving contestants who claimed they were given the answers to make them win, and were told when to take a fall so the show would get a new champion.

It’d be a good companion piece to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which I haven’t seen in far too long, a double-feature on the scandals and cover-ups of early television. In this case, the producers saw that whole thing as entertainment and as long as the ratings stayed up and viewers were enjoying the show, who cares if it’s legit? Well, Herbie Stemple (John Turturro), one of the dropped contestants, cares quite a bit, and soon young lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) is on the case as well, while current champion Charlie Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) his best to pretend he’s on the up and up – as a Columbia University professor moonlighting on the quiz show, he’s got the most to lose, aside from the network itself of course.


We have a fascination with the inner workings of television, and though we’re totally cynical and jaded about it now (if our ongoing spate of reality television has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is truly unscripted and even less is unedited), the 1950s seem like a time of total innocence and naivete in comparison. To find out that one of America’s biggest networks was micromanaging a popular competitive TV show is not just scandalous, it’s kind of deliciously so, and the detective work Goodwin goes through to try to prove it is all enormously entertaining, as is Turturro’s wonderful turn as the spurned Stemple. At the same time, the film, like history, has its tragic-yet-deserving fall guys, while the network claims ignorance of the whole thing. You can’t beat corporations.

There are a lot of really great scenes and character moments mixed in with all this, especially those involving Stemple or Charlie’s dad, also a renowned Columbia professor who thinks this silly quiz game is a distraction from Charlie’s real calling as a teacher. The elder Van Doren is played by Paul Scofield, making this the second time within a few months during this challenge Scofield has blown me away – I think this and A Man for All Seasons are the only two films I’ve seen him in, and he’s great in both. The scene when Charlie tells him the truth is devastating.


One thing I will say is I don’t know if it was the lighting or saturation or if Ralph Fiennes just really needed some face powder, but he looked surprisingly shiny and overexposed most of the time. Some of it was the “it’s the ’50s!” gloss that a lot of more modern movies use (which often irritates me, because movies actually from the 1950s don’t look like that), but it affects Fiennes far more than anyone else, and it’s fairly distracting. Just a weird choice for Redford to make as director. Was that a thing for anyone else, or do I have my TV set on weird-Fiennes-o-vision or something?

I’ve missed a lot of great films from the early ’90s, as I didn’t start paying attention to movies coming out until 1997 or so – many of them, like this one, I’ve heard of but never felt much compunction to seek out. I’m glad this was one assigned to me, because I really enjoyed it, and I don’t know when I would’ve gotten to it on my own. Maybe never, and that would’ve been unfortunate.


Stats and stuff…

1994, USA
directed by Robert Redford, written by Paul Attanasio
starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Quiz Show entered my chart:

Quiz Show > The Student Prince
Quiz Show > The Furies
Quiz Show < Magnolia
Quiz Show < The Matrix Reloaded
Quiz Show > Paranoid Park
Quiz Show > Thirst
Quiz Show < Collateral
Quiz Show > Gasp!
Quiz Show > Capricorn One
Quiz Show > The Kennel Murder Case
Quiz Show < Detective Story

Final ranking #721 out of 3678 films on my chart (80%)

It is now my #1 Robert Redford film, my #3 John Turturro film, my #7 Ralph Fiennes film, my #2 Paul Scofield film, my #18 Americana film, my #7 Docudrama, and my #9 film of 1994.

Quiz Show was recommended by David Anderson, a friend from the Flickcharters group on Facebook. Averaging together this #721 ranking with my #780 ranking of his other film, I Confess, gives David an average ranking of 750.

A few quotes…

Herbie Stemple: [referring to television] That box is the biggest thing since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and I’m the biggest thing on it.

Dan Enright: How much do they pay instructors up at Columbia?
Charles Van Doren: Eighty-six dollars a week.
Dan Enright: Do you have any idea how much Bozo the Clown makes?
Charles Van Doren: Well… we, we can’t all be Bozo the Clown.

Herbie Stemple: You know why they call them Indians? Because Columbus thought he was in India. They’re “Indians” because some white guy got lost.

Dick Goodwin: I know you’re lying.
Charles Van Doren: Bluffing. The word is bluffing.

Mark Van Doren: Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.

Dick Goodwin: [of Charles Van Doren] There’s absolutely no need to drag the man into the spotlight.
Sandra Goodwin: You dragged Herb Stempel into the spotlight.
Dick Goodwin: Stempel? The man has to be dragged from the spotlight with his teeth marks still on it!

Albert Freedman: It’s not like we’re hardened criminals here. We’re in show business.

Charles Van Doren: I’ve stood on the shoulders of life and I’ve never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I’ve flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy.

Congressman Derounian: I’m happy that you’ve made the statement. But I cannot agree with most of my colleagues. See, I don’t think an adult of your intelligence should be commended for simply, at long last, telling the truth.

Dick Goodwin: I thought we were gonna get television. The truth is… television is gonna get us.

A few more screenshots…