In the best American bootstrap tradition, the Mafia in recent years has been trying to rise about its seamy past and achieve an image of respectability. It is infiltrating legitimate businesses, settling in swanky suburbs, sending kids to the best schools.

But behind the facade of social gentility, the Mob still depends on the strongarm tactics that have characterized its operations since the days of Al Capone. As grim reminders, two underworld bosses were executed recently in gangland style: Angelo Bruno in Philadelphia and Carmine Galante in New York.

Concerned about this latest outbreak of Mob violence, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will begin public hearings on the subject this week. The subcommittee staff has been quietly gathering material for months.

My own investigation of Mob violence has turned up some fascinating examples of the problem that the subcommittee will be examining at its hearings. Thhey illustrate the fact that mobsters today are not too far removed from the stereotypes portrayed in the Hollywood epics of the 1930s.

Sample of the following conversation between the reputed crime boss of Kansas City, Mo., Nick Civella, and his brother Carl. It is no movie script; it was taped in late 1978 by the FBI, and the subject was how best to rub out a troublesome rival named Carl Spero.

Carl Civella suggested they heed the apparently homicidal instincts of William ("Willy the Rat") Cammisano, saying: "I agree with Willy. I been discussing it. What Willy says, we take the limbs first, before you -- 'cause you can't get to the trunk. And you isolate the trunk by itself."

In this metaphorical dismemberment, Spero was the trunk, and his bodyguards were the limbs. Carl Civella then suggests a method of assassination that brother Nick finds impractical.

"I'm just scared anymore of dealing on impulse, ah, out of my heart," confesses Nick. "I want to start dealing with my head. We just got to use our heads a little."

"Using our heads," it transpires, means not using "peckerwoods" (the Mafia term for non-Italians) to eliminate Spero. Nor did Nick like the idea of nailing the victim at his home.

"That house is exposed for a mile," Nick observes, adding: "He'd be moving. He's a moving target . . . just a 1-in-50 shot. Suppose he misses the guy."

"What's wrong with a motel?" askes brother Carl.

"He's too cautions," replies Nick. "He's afraid he might get tailed and he could get trapped."

Then Nick, who is obviously the brains of the organization, runs an idea up the flagpole, like any business executive. "You know what we need," he tells his brother. "We need disguises, for one thing. We need wigs and we need a mustache . . . and a beard."

Every suggested method for wiping out Spero has some snag or other, but Nick Civella ends the conversation on a gung-ho note of pride worthy of any organization man. "Let me tell you something," he says to his brother. "We got the best [expletive] bloodhounds in the United States and always have." g

This all might be laughed off as the amusing antics of a couple of comic-strip characters -- except for the fact that it was real blood, not the movieland variety they were thinking of shedding. Whether the bloodhounds ever tracked Spero down is not known, but it is a fact that he was wounded in an assassination attempt two years ago.

Spero was no helpless clay pigeon, according to federal agents. He allegedly plotted against the Civella mob with equal enthusiasm. In May 1979, G-men found a remote-control bomb they said was "believed to have been designed to kill Carl ("Tuffy") Deluna, a high-ranking member of the Civella mob." The feds figered Spero's brother, Joseph, was behind this attempted plot.

And there was nothing farcical about the execution of David Bonadonna, a member of Willy ("The Rat") Cammmisano's branch of the Civella operation. The unfortunate Bonadonna was riddled with bullets and stuffed into the trunk of his car in July 1976.

As federal investigators pieced it together, Cammisano had tried to get Bonadonna's son, who was not a Mob member, to help with a liquor license in Kansas City's River Quay redevelopment project. The younger bonadonna refused, and his father eventually paid the price. Cammisano is now in prison for extortion; the younger Bonadonna is enrolled in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

How many Mob-related killings have occured in recent years? An internal report by the Justice Department's Intelligence and Special Services unit puts the total at 208 mobsters and hangers-on during a seven-year period. "But that's not even half of them," one insider told my associate Tony Capaccio.

A staff report by organized-crime-expert Ralph Salerno for a House committee lays out the systematic nature of the Mafia's bloody work. "Use of violence by organized crime requires authorization and approval," the report states." Approval usually must be given by a person of rank, power and authority. He is the authorizer."

From the executive, the approved "deal" is turned over to the middleman, or "expediter," who is "given the wide latitude as to how it is carried out," according to the Salerno report. Ultimately, it is assigned to the field representative, or "hit man," recruited from a roster of professional killers.

The thing to remember about this grisly parody of American business practice is that the transactions involve the violent death of someone who has -- innocently or not -- gotten in the way of a mob leader's pursuit of power. The mobsters may dress like Wall Street brokers, but they're no more respectable than they ever were.