GOING IN STYLE -- Beacon Mall, Beltway Plaza, Pike, Roth's Americana, Roth's Tysons Corner, Tenley Circle, Wheaton Plaza.

"Going in Style" is misbilled as a farce about three nice old gaffers who grow bored of dawdling out their days on a park bench and decide to rob a bank. It isn't a comedy, although lesser actors than George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg might have beaten the idea to mush with slapsticks.

The movie's premise had equal promise for a tragedy, but writer/director Martin Best resisted that temptation also. Instead, what these talented and perceptive men did was, they got together and a made a film.

And they did it the hard way. In almost every scene there must have been awful temptation to moralize, or mug, or drop a gag or steal a tear. But Burns, Carney and Strasberg combine two centuries of experience and wisdom in their art and craft, and in "Style" they do not milk or muff a single line or gesture. There are no cheap shots in the movie. There is in fact only one shot fired, by Burns, in just the right manner at just the right time, and it nails down the reality of the story being told.

It all hangs together. Yes, three smart, proud, physically frail and mentally tough old guys living in the suspended animation of the Social Security pensioner might very well decide, what the hell, any thing is better than this, let's knock off a bank. If it works, we're rich. If it doesn't, we pull maybe three years of rent-free jail, and meanwhile the monthly checks from the SSA will be piling up, eight thousand apiece plus interest, we could open a newsstand when we got out.

So maybe they get shot? Is that worse than waiting for the stroke, or the mugger, or for a bus to run them down because young technicians set traffic lights to cycle faster than old people can walk?

As screen writer, Best gave the three old masters a solid, honest script to work with. As director, he supported them with flawless casting and then had the good sense to let them carry the ball. What else could a wise young man have done? Who is going to tell George Burns about pace? Or advise Art Carney how to play under a strong leadig actor without being smothered? Or school Lee Strasberg in the method of illuminating a character from within?

Which is not to say that Best just sat on the set and watched the old pros play it. The measure of his art is that the settings are perfect and the camera does not intrude. Most of the film is shot from eye level at about the distance a passerby or visitor might stand.The camera moves close -- but never too close -- when the story is being told by the expressions in those wise and weary eyes and the lines in those weathered faces. It moves back at times to remind us how strong and fast and hard is the world from which these week and slow and fragile men are trying to cut one last fat slice.

A sustained undertone of menace provides the suspense needed to power the story line through several necessarily long passages that otherwise would be tedious. It's built of little things, which the camera notes but does not linger on.

Can they pull it off? As burns says when he first proposes the caper, they win whatever happens, and anyway, what have they got to lose?

Well, these three splendid actors had a lot to lose; none of them has time to waste. Burns could have tossed off another of his tiresome self-parodies; instead we're privileged to see a great old artist play a great old man without using any of the tricks that have been his lifelong stock in trade. Carney could simply have done his Norton act, which is a hell of an act; what he's given us is a generous and powerful performance that demonstrates the very essence of supportive acting. Strasberg, who has taught several generations of fine players, is of course unimpeachable throughout; and, in the single scene of which he is the central figure, he attains perfection.

's a shame the promoters are selling the movie as a comedy, because patrons may assume it's another of Burns' dogs. What it is, a funny-sad, tender-tough story about three old guys who may be on their last legs but who are, well going in style.