He looks in the mirror, and he sees a crack:

So tough, this business of life colliding with art -- la dolce vita turns into la brutta vita, which is precisely what is happening right now as retired detective Robert Leuci, star of screen once removed, sits in a New York City movie theater with his 11-year-old daughter, Santina, watching Treat Williams portray Bob Leuci in the film "Prince of the City."

Halfway through this epic of morality and justice -- about the Italian guilt of a crooked cop and the public repentance that destroyed some of his colleagues -- Santina hugs her father's arm and whispers, "DADDY, how could you snitch on your friends?"

A beat, a pause that nearly stops his heart and sends him reeling back through the five years of agony he unleashed on the New York City police force and his family and the Justice Department and his own psyche. He regains his composure: the same tough Sicilian determination -- ancestors from Corleone -- that let him wear a wire and make clandestine tape recordings of men he'd dealt with for years and help send them off to the slammer.

And he says to Santina, "That's a complicated question and I'll talk about it with you later."

Sicilian Pride

Sometimes these things are better addressed as metaphors. As Robert Daley wrote in his book, "Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much":

"Leuci prided himself on being a tough cop -- they all did -- but in the end he proved far less tough than any of the others. Perhaps he had more conscience than they did, or perhaps he merely was troubled by what all of them were doing. In any case, he was the one who stepped forward, and, in so doing, brought on the ruin of everyone else. It was almost biblical. Like Samson, he first did penance, and then he pulled the temple down."

What happened is history now. For seven years, from 1965 to 1972, Bob Leuci was an undercover narcotics cop in New York, roaming around town like a prince of the city, making busts on the one hand and deals with his fellow cops on the other. Many of the people he worked with were of Italian descent, and no phrase was more apt than the old Italian adage, "The left hand washes the right and the right hand washes the left and both hands wash the face." You held a little dope back, you gave away a little, you stuck a little money in your pocket, you bought your kids a new pair of shoes, and you put an extra offering in the collection basket. No one in Brooklyn was surprised that mafioso Carlo Gambino had a church funeral: He built the rectory for his parish priests.

For better or worse, in 1972, Bob Leuci met a New York City prosecutor named Nick Scoppetta. Leuci had already pocketed about $18,000, and he could picture his immortal soul just the way it had been depicted to him as a kid in the BaltimoreCatechism: a pure white milk bottle turned black by the grievous offense of mortal sin. He knew what he was up against. He had seen "The Godfather" three times. He understood that equating silence with honor was part of every Italian kid's DNA.

But he also recognized implicitly what Diane Keaton would have to say to Al Pacino in part two of the film: "Michael, this crazy Sicilian thing has got to stop." Leuci sensed that Scoppetta could be a father confessor, would help him do penance. And Scoppetta knew that Leuci was one of the best detectives on the force, a guy who knew everything that was going on.

The trouble was their only common link was precisely this crazy Sicilian thing, which included a strong sense of initial distrust. So they tap-danced around each other, the cop and the prosecutor, theoretically both working for the law, but ultimately with such different concepts of justice: street smarts and courtroom savvy. They exhausted months looking for the weak points in each other.

Finally Leuci knew he couldn't live with himself like this any longer.

And he confessed to Scoppetta, in the form of an eternal odyssey unlike anything Ulysses ever encountered -- taping friends and acquaintances and testifying against them, watching 50 of his colleagues get indicted, one go crazy, two commit suicide.

Through all of this madness -- the isolation, the humiliation, the distrust and the knowledge that he had destroyed camaraderie in the police department like no one before him -- he had one source of solace: his wife, Gina, and their children, Anthony and Santina.

And now even Santina stares -- the same little girl who had to be escorted to school by federal marshals toting submachine guns when mobsters and dealers and most New York cops wanted to serve her father for Thanksgiving dinner; Santina, whose bedroom in Connecticut has a huge poster for the movie displayed prominently on the wall, right next to a few dozen pictures of tiny, helpless animals carefully cut out of her monthly copies of Ranger Rick magazine; Santina the gymnast; Santina the daughter who writes absolutely unswerving notes of loyalty -- omerta, honor and silence -- to both her parents . . .

Now even Santina is asking: "DADDY, how could you snitch on your friends?"

If this were not his daughter, the one he now delivers newspapers for so she can go off to cheerleading practice, he would go into a slow burn. If he were sitting at a table in a restaurant, he would move his fingers around the tablecloth as if maneuvering imaginary chess players, and say, you can't understand it unless you've been there. And he would throw in this criticism of his character in the film: "He's always screaming. Italians don't scream when they're really mad; they get quiet."

If he were on a television talk show, and he has been on many in the past three weeks, it would go like this . . .

Right now, it is 9:57:27 a.m. on Sept. 21, and Judy Licht is interviewing Bob Leuci on "Good Morning New York."

Would you do it again, she asks him? He looks at her. The look on his face can't quite believe she is asking this. Does she think this all occurred as if it had been a TV special? Of course not, he says.

"How could you turn your best friends in?" she asks.

He winces.

"I've answered that question so often and I answer it differently every time," he says. His voice is cracking. "I found myself in a place I didn't want to be. I couldn't tell the difference between myself, my partners and the people we were investigating."

"Did you ever think you would die?"

"Never, not for a second."

"A lot of cops still resent you."

"I think those feelings are very valid."

Part of his odyssey is that there always will be someone there to doubt, to question, to bring back the demons. Today, on the show, it is Nick Pileggi, who has claimed in New York Magazine that Bob Leuci was a much more crooked cop than he admitted to being. Pileggi reiterates this on the show, after which Judy Licht says -- this is show business after all -- "These men may have differences of opinion, but they're really very good friends."

But when the show is finished, Pileggi turns to her and gets tough: "Don't you ever say that again, or I'll never be on your show." He walks out -- without his good friend.

The Scarlet Letter

After the show, Bob Leuci is walking down Broadway. He's dressed smartly in a blue suit; his deep-set eyes are bright and always scanning the street; his black hair perfectly coiffed. He still looks like what they used to call him on the street, even now at 41: Babyface. He's walking like a drunk, explaining how he used to work as a decoy in Times Square to lure the pickpockets so his partners could move in and make a collar. He talks about some crazy busts. "A beautiful bust," he says. "It's like writing a story. You do the reporting and then you put it all together. You don't know what you have until the end. Sometimes it works. And sometimes . . ."

His voice trails off. He is trying to say that he would like to be an investigative journalist, now that he has retired from the force, now that he has made about a half-million dollars from the book and the film about him, now that he has nothing but time.

But it rings about as false as the promotion picture of him they flashed on the TV screen an hour earlier. He was grinning, all his teeth showing. He had looked at it and said, "They do this to me every time. I'm always smiling. The guy who got away with it. This promotion business is the most Machiavellian world I've ever seen. It makes the Mafia look like small time. I'm on this show a few weeks ago. I'm sitting in the Green Room with Neil Simon. He's out promoting his new film. We're talking about the Rams. We're getting along great. I go on for two minutes. He watches it. He doesn't like it. He says, 'You're the guy who wore a wire against your friends.' Then he won't talk to me."

A beat.

"I'm so sick of me. Jesus, I'm sick of my story. I have to go around wearing this big G for guilt. It's my scarlet letter. It's like I can say to them now, 'What do you want? The 30-, 60- or 90-second tragedy spiel?' "

Among Friends

It is early September, and Bob Leuci is in Washington to attend a screening of "Prince" for some D.C. honchos. He is introduced to someone, and when the man walks away Leuci says, "Who was that?" He's told it was the attorney general, and he winces. There's still something about him that cringes when he gets too close to these Justice Department types. Like Nick Scoppetta says, "I learned one major thing from my work with Bob Leuci. Now that I'm in private practice, I tell any of my clients who are offered a deal like that with the government: 'Don't do it! It's better to go to jail. They'll drag you through hell.' "

One night during his visit, Leuci goes off to F. Scott's with a couple of people. One of them is Rudi Giuliani, now associate attorney general, No. 3 at Justice; then one of the federal prosecutors working with Leuci on cases.

In the film, for legal reasons, Giuliani is called Mario Vincente, just as Leuci is called Danny Ciello and Scoppetta is Rick Cappalino. Of the film, Giuliani says to Leuci: "Dramatically accurate, factually inaccurate." And then, "I can't believe how well I come off."

They laugh. They are the kind of friends who can speak in partial sentences and understand each other completely.

"Rudi. I get driven around in limousines now. It's unbelievable. I have to keep telling myself it's not real. It could be addictive. I get on the phone and the car comes."

"I understand," Giuliani says. His eyes pitch up. He doesn't tell Leuci that he has a driver and car now as one of the perks of official Washington.

"I bring you greeting from Nick Scoppetta ," Leuci says to Giuliani. "He told me to tell you that this administration s----."

Giuliani is laughing. "This is a guy with a law degree? Can't he articulate a little better than that?"

"Articulate?" Leuci says. "You should hear some of the things they're asking me, Rudi. They say, 'What should we do with drug addicts?' and I say, 'The answer is to take 'em all out and shoot 'em, or make it legal.' I have to tell them I'm joking. One woman asked me how I was able to get through all this, and I say, 'It was just me and Jesus,' and they cut for a commercial. They think they've got a nut case on the air."

It is a wonderful evening of laughter. "Jesus," Leuci says as Giuliani walks away from the table. "I used to get into these unbelievable situations, and Rudi would have me laughing hysterically. What a crazy paradox it was."

"He's changed tremendously," says Giuliani. "When I met him he was torn between two sets of values: the people he worked with and committed crimes with, and his hero worship for Scoppetta and Scoppetta's colleague Mike Shaw. The people that he hurt, it's all over now. He knows what he's about."

Much later Leuci is headed out to Virginia on the GW Parkway. His family lived in Vienna for almost two years while he was working with prosecutors.

"Pull over here," he says. He points across the road at a concrete embankment.

He looks like a ghost. His face is white, his hair standing out as if charged with static electricity. He's had quite a bit to drink, but this is not a fear that emanates from an out-of-control drunk.

"That's where I tried to kill myself," he says. "That's where I wanted to slam my car so that I could stop this whole thing. And I get stopped by a cop. A cop stops me from doing this, and he had no idea who I was. I didn't want to turn those guys in. I got the word out: Stay away from me. It just got too big for all of us."

Part of it still seems too big. He falls asleep in the car.

Prince Dethroned

Another day in New York and Bob Leuci is out on the prowl. He keeps coming back for more, even though he can't define for himself or anyone else exactly what more is. It is not as if he has to be in the city. He retired from the force a few months back, after spending his last several years in cop limbo -- teaching at the police training academy and answering phones at the Civilian Complaint Review Board. From streetwise hustler to bored bureaucrat.

His wife, a devoted Italian immigrant, keeps saying to him: "Bob, relax. You're retired now. Sit down and enjoy yourself."

Maybe she really thinks he can do that. Maybe she really thinks he can stick his shield in the dresser drawer with the socks that she launders, go outside and pull a few weeds in the garden behind the house in rural Connecticut, forget he was ever a prince of the city.

But, of course, he knows he belongs in that city -- belongs to it -- and, unlike Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," he could not die happily in the tomato patch.

"We see the glass door and we run through it," he says, "because we have to know what's on the other side."

And so he keeps wandering back into the city, three or four days a week, with nothing in particular to do. He still has a badge -- the same kind of fake one that most active-duty detectives carry around -- and he has to stop himself from pulling it out as his eyes comb the street and instinctively lock onto suspicious people. He was a smart cop, and he still is. And although he still has a permit to carry a weapon -- and his friends tell him he should -- he almost always forgets it. It's not as easy to do penance with a Smith & Wesson .38 special service revolver in your briefcase. As recently as three years ago, when the Daley book was published, he traveled with a police-assigned bodyguard. And he packed his gun. Now he's not looking over his shoulder as much.

Gina Leuci thinks there's something wrong with their relationship, what with Bob always running back to the city. They went through all this hell together, and now finally, for the first time in their lives, they have time and money. She thinks he's running away from her.

But maybe it's not that at all.

Maybe neither of them can see right now that there may be no heaven without that hell.

Or maybe he's running away from himself. Not from the Bob Leuci who made detective in less than four years on the force, not from the cop who never grimaced when the battery acid from his transmitter ate holes in his skin while a mobster at a table opposite him ate some calamari.

From someone completely different . . .

He looks in the mirror and he sees a crack:

How can he be the man he knows and the man he and Santina see up there on the screen?

Maybe he's running away from that conversation with Santina, the one he knows he has to have. He's not worried about his son Anthony, a high school sophomore who's playing varsity football and lifting weights. Anthony can take care of himself.

But Santina . . .This conversation might bring her whole world of cheerleading and daddy and abandoned animals tumbling down just like the temple.

This is what he says he has to tell her:

"Sometimes things happen in your life that you don't want to happen, but you have to deal with them anyway.

"Some decisions you make aren't the right decisions.

"Some things that are right for you will damage other people."