The point is how so you justify in a public company keeping a felon in office? The SEC will never sit still for it."

"They have so far."

"They obviously think you're going to get rid of him."

"The SEC has no right to run Columbia Pictures." --From "Indecent Exposure" by David McClintick

In this summer of blockbusters, the hottest property in Hollywood is not a movie but a pirated manuscript.

"Indecent Exposure" begins with the incendiary scandal surrounding Columbia Studios president David Begelman, who in 1977 admitted to forging signatures on three checks and subsequently pled no contest to grand theft. And it ends with the removal in 1978 of Begelman's nemesis, Alan Hirschfield, president and chief executive officer of Columbia Pictures Industries, who was ousted by the pro-Begelman corporate faction in a board-room bloodbath in New York.

The meticulous expose' by former Wall Street Journal reporter David McClintick will be published by Morrow next month. But as early as May, unauthorized photocopies were already moving at the speed of gossip through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, as moguls and gofers alike poured over the densely detailed chronicle.

As well they might: According to McClintick, Begelgate paled in comparison to the larger tale of vicious corporate feuding, power plays and cover-ups which illustrates the enormous power of Wall Street over the movie industry. As Columbia lost first Begelman (who then went to MGM, and later to United Artists) and then Hirschfield (who recently became head of Twentieth Century-Fox), the ensuing executive shuffle rocked the industry. The "entire entertainment community had been shaken," McClintick writes. "Four of the seven major studios--Columbia, Fox, MGM, and United Artists--had changed drastically" in the reshuffling of executives. No wonder that six weeks before publication date, the Los Angeles Times was calling the 544-page volume "the best-read unpublished book in Hollywood since 'Gone with the Wind.' "

And one of the best hated, especially among Begelman partisans. New York investment banker Herbert Allen Jr., who led the CPI board war against Hirschfield, derided the book as novelistic, said it was "like reading one side of a divorce case," and charged factual inaccuracy and misleading characterizations. Producer Ray Stark--Allen's ally and a veteran of many pictures for Columbia--called McClintick's portrayals "more a product of his creative writing ability than fact. I found his book to be about as unbiased as the Argentine reports of the Falklands war."

But as film-world blood pressures rose, so did interest in the book. And that was before Begelman left United Artists earlier this month, prompting speculation that McClintick's book was in part responsible; before a ranking executive at the International Creative Management agency advised his staff that it was "invaluable background" for understanding Hollywood; before producers started calling about turning "Indecent Exposure" into a TV movie. Morrow was forced to move publication from September to August and up the printing to 65,000; and the bland-mannered McClintick, 42, was forced into the limelight from the modest confines of his West-side co-op at 104th Street.

"It's hard to imagine that it could have attracted more attention," says the author with typically lackluster circumspection. After 11 years as a financial reporter at the Journal and three more researching and writing "Exposure," McClintick is no flamboyant muckraker. His rimless glasses are bent, his gray suede shoes scuffed, his flat sentences--which he tapes for the record--spaced with prudent pauses. Although he uses first names freely (Allen is "Herb," film star Cliff Robertson is "Cliff"), he seems a perfect antithesis of the Hollywood type: "In a way, it worked to my advantage--a lot of these guys felt more comfortable with an outsider." That dogged placidity, too, worked to his advantage when the first surprise volley of reactions arrived.

"I guess we were all a bit naive," says McClintick. Publishers assume that many movie studios maintain spies to spirit away books while they are still in typescript; yet Morrow attempted secrecy, sending out a limited number of galleys and a "very explicitly worded letter urging confidentiality." But within days, moviedom was Gucci-deep in photocopies--reprehensible, McClintick says, "in an industry which is even as we speak engaged in litigation against copyright infringement."

"I began to get calls from the Coast. The typical one starts, 'Hi, Dave. this is So-and-So. I just read your book. It's a real page-turner, really a good job, you captured everything. Now, I just have a few comments . . ." Meaning complaints. Studio executives and cinema powers who didn't like the way they were described were "hoping," says McClintick, "that somehow I would see fit to change these words. I did not."

Yet to date there have been no lawsuits. And McClintick exudes the calm assurance of a CPA with all the receipts. "These people are fortunate that I didn't write everything I know about them."

Nonetheless, "Indecent Exposure" tells a galvanizingly lurid story. It began, like so many watershed moments in Hollywood history, with the signing of a check. But this one was forged: Begelman had ordered the studio to make it out for $10,000 payable to film star Cliff Robertson, and then had endorsed it himself in Robertson's name. The theft was discovered only by accident, when the unwitting Robertson received an IRS form to account for the payment. In mid-1977, Robertson reported the matter to the police and then, according to McClintick, began to fear for his safety. The FBI advised caution. It was suggested to Robertson, who was filming in London at the time, that he ride to the set lying in the back seat of his limo, covered with a blanket.

As McClintick tells it, during the summer Columbia conducted a sub-rosa investigation which turned up other forgeries; by fall, it had become an all-consuming scandal. Before Columbia officials, Begelman admitted to forging signatures on several checks, as well as substantial diddling of his expense account, and the matter came to the notice of McClintick at the Journal. He had been assigned to do a routine corporate profile of CPI, and ended up breaking the forged-check story. As the coverage continued, he spent scores of hours interviewing the principals in the affair and studying documents, while the embattled Begelman remained at the Columbia Studios helm.

For some time, McClintick had wanted to leave the Journal and write books full time. His first, "Stealing from the Rich" (1977)--an account of the Home-Stake oil swindle written in the evenings after work--had been well received, and he was looking for another project. But grand theft wasn't big enough: L'affaire Begelman, as Variety called it, "seemed like a garden-variety white-collar criminal situation."

Some garden. Begelman was as controversial as he was talented. He had attended an Air Force training program at Yale during World War II, and somehow the impression grew that he had been a student there, even graduated from Yale Law. In the early '60s, he became Judy Garland's agent and was the model for Lyon Burke, the agent in Jacqueline Susann's "The Valley of the Dolls." He had a comfortable salary at Columbia, a string of promising films in the can (including "Close Encounters") and yet stole relatively small sums--including a check for $25,000 in the name of Pierre Groleau, the mai tre d' at Ma Maison. (Even when the details of the scandal were finally revealed, Begelman managed to engage the sympathy of the film community by pleading mental problems and betaking himself to Judd Marmor, "psychiatrist to the stars.")

McClintick was not without indignation at such behavior. Born in Kansas, he attended high school in Montana before Harvard and Columbia Journalism School. After four years in Army language training and a brief stint at the Associated Press, he had gone to the Wall Street Journal in 1968. Along the way, he had become fascinated with "men who like to live on the edge," and angry that for white-collar types, "crime does pay. There's clearly a double standard. It's easier for a rich man--a rich white man--to have the most competent defense lawyer available, easier to retain a psychiatrist, as happened in this case, than for a poor black man or woman who has robbed a gas station and has an equally complex psychological profile."

But, says McClintick, "if there had been only a Begelman scandal, there would have been no book." Instead, it proved a "delicious" way to get into the real story, which emerged in the summer of 1978 when Hirschfield was fired. "It suddenly came to me--the crucial insight--that what I had on my hands was not just a scandal, but well beyond," a tale of "corporate blood-spilling, family alliances that go back five decades split asunder, psychological warfare, brutality and violence in the board room." As he tells it, it would make a Medici blush.

In the space of a year, Hirschfield fired Begelman, then reinstated him, then fired him again as press pressure became unbearable. At each step, Hirschfield's position became more precarious. According to McClintick, CPI's board--led by Allen, whose family firm, Allen & Co., was a major stockholder--backed Begelman, who was claiming massive contrition, and began to pressure Hirschfield to keep him on. So did Stark, whose clout at Columbia was considerable. As Begelman shuttled back and forth at Columbia, the board was warring with Hirschfield, while simultaneously investigating potential conflicts of interest in the employment of Hirschfield's wife, Berte, who was employed at a market-research firm used by Columbia. (No conflict or potential conflict was found.) Hirschfield, for his part, began secretly looking for an outsider to buy control of the corporation--among them Grand Union tycoon Sir James Goldsmith, Philip Morris, Penn Central and Chris-Craft--as well as urging a merger with Filmways and Mattel toys which would change the balance of power on the Columbia board. When Hirschfield was finally fired in a New York showdown, McClintick had his story.

He and his agent Kathy Robbins got a contract from Morrow, and he began amassing the reams of corporate records, testimony before the Securities and Exchange Commission, telephone logs and diaries, and various documents (including National Weather Service reports) which he supplemented with hundreds of hours of interviews with officials involved. "Some of my best sources were people on the second or third level," and of the 100 most important characters, he says, "no more than three or four stonewalled me." In fact, he says, "I was surprised by how open these people were once I got them to sit down, and how little they disagreed about the facts."

Despite the inflammatory nature of the story, McClintick's book would have provoked a less heated reaction had it not been for two major decisions. The first was to tell the story almost entirely from Hirschfield's point of view--often recounting his private feelings--with the inevitable result that he becomes the most sympathetic figure. McClintick says the focus was necessary because "he emerges as the character with the most choices, the most forks in the road." So McClintick spent more time "psychoanalysing" Hirschfield's personality, which he found "softer and more playful" than those of his victorious adversaries. But he says the shape of the story itself dictated how much time was devoted to each character; and besides, "I think that if a writer second-guesses himself too much, he'll end up pulling his punches."

The second decision was to avoid paraphrase ("human beings do not speak in paraphrase") and instead to recreate extensive dialogue from the accounts of those present. The colorful, often salty result at times approaches the texture of a novel--a genre which McClintick has recently discovered. "The single greatest gap in my education is the wonder of fiction," with its "more profound insight" into humanity, he says. So "a lot of the reading I do now is reading people usually do in their twenties," and the living room of the apartment he shares with his wife Judith, a Columbia PhD who is head of the music department at Manhattan's prestigious Dalton School, has a number of novels amid the Economists and New Yorkers. But he is adamant that "Exposure" is "hard-core nonfiction" on a subject where admirable models are few--"those who write best about Hollywood seem to write least"--and include works by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Marie Brenner and Lillian Ross.

Asked to comment on the book, Hirschfield and Begelman did not return calls. Stark is out of the country and cannot be reached, his studio said. Herbert Allen Jr., who condemns the book as "highly inaccurate," complains that it is "remarkable in its ability to weave quotes where the author admits that quotes didn't exist." McClintick quietly insists that he has several sources for each conversation, and "I felt compelled to spend enough time with these people to capture not only what they said to each other, but the way they said it. I make no representation that these were the exact words used," but they convey "accurately the flavor and spirit of what was said."

Lots of flavor. At one point, McClintick depicts an exchange between Allen and producer Marty Ransahoff in the sauna at Allen's summer house at Southampton in the fall of 1977. They are discussing the possibility of the Begelman story leaking into print. Allen says, "The press is overrated. Ray Stark feels that even if the details get out, it'll blow away in three weeks." Ransahoff replies: "My ------, it'll blow away. It'll blow away like Dorothy and Toto. If this were the steel-flange business or the ball-bearing business, who knows whether anybody would give a --------. But we're living in a fishbowl. This is the glamour biz. You can't tell me there aren't six 28-year-old reporters who'll blow this thing sky high. You're walking into a fire barefooted."

This is the stuff of which best-sellers are made, and McClintick is already on a roll. Morrow will release a paperback edition of "Stealing From the Rich"; bidding has started on the reprint of "Exposure"; McClintick has contracts for two more books (one to Simon & Schuster, which approached him while he was finishing "Exposure," the next book to Morrow); and those movie producers keep calling--some of them trying to acquire the rights simply to keep a movie from being made, according to Richard Covey, McClintick's West Coast agent.

That kind of reaction, McClintick says, is symptomatic of chronic ego-bloat in movieland. "Historically, the press about Hollywood has been reviews or puff pieces about the personalities," but the Begelman scandal coincided with "a new breed of journalists they have never encountered before." Yet he doubts that the system will change, or that his book influenced the recent Begelman departure: "At the very most it's the straw that broke his back. This book would have been embarrassing, but he could almost have profited from that. In the past, he's been able to turn controversy to his advantage" because of the clannish and fantasy-prone nature of the movie industry.

"On the level that I'm writing about it," McClintick says, "Hollywood is not so much a place as an international state of mind that exists every bit as much at the corner of 58th Street and 5th Avenue as on the MGM lot." And that state of mind often suffers from "overweening arrogance," McClintick writes. "When not held in check, it can breed all manner of abuses, including the notion--sometimes subtle but always malignant--that anything goes, no one can stop it, and indeed no one cares."