When James Cagney was dragged kicking and screaming to the electric chair in the 1938 film classic `Angels With Dirty Faces,` moviegoers across America pulled the executioner's switch themselves. In the popular culture of 20th century America, capital punishment was enshrined as the ultimate and inevitable retribution of a just society for a lifetime of violence -- the most dramatic example that "crime does not pay.` In a thousand books and films and comic books and tabloid supplements, fear-stained murderers sweated "in the shadow of the electric chair` or "walked the last mile` to the end of this life and the judgment of a life beyond. Electrocution formed the cultural as well as literary denouement of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy.` Cagney only pounded the message home.

So why the squeamishness, in 1982, over the execution of Frank J. Coppola, who failed as policeman and student priest but succeeded in beating an old woman to death and begged to be allowed to die? Virginia Gov. Charles Robb called the decision not to intervene in Coppola's case the most difficult of his career. President Reagan called to sympathize.

Where is James Cagney when we need him?

It wasn't the electric chair that killed Coppola. It was the too-long-misplaced notion of social accountability, which holds that those who break the rules pay a price. If death is the ultimate price and society never demands it, what possible deterrent power can any punishment have? And while the scope of capital punishment's deterrent power can well be argued, its force cannot: it certainly deterred the hell out of Frank Coppola the other night.

Those who argue against capital punishment -- and they include the vast majority of journalists and writers -- can summon an army of moral abstractions to their side, as well as man's noblest convictions about what he ought to be. But they tend to lose sight of stunning and ubiquitous evidence -- visible from 14th Street to Beirut -- that man's nature remains Darwinially red in tooth and claw.

`Sweet William thought it wrong to fight,` wrote Hillaire Belloc. "Bad Bill, who killed him, thought it right.`

The general public remains a good deal more hard-nosed about capital punishment than those of us in the press. Polls in recent years have shown an overwhelming majority of Americans -- fully 75 percent -- favor the death penalty. Some 35 states have writ- ten laws instituting or reinstituting the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 decision upholding its constitutionality.

Even in the District of Columbia, which has no death penalty, informal surveys have shown a majority of the population favors execution for such violent crimes as random murder. The majority -- though smaller -- holds even among blacks, despite the publicly voiced opposition to capital punishment of some black leaders, mindful of the disproportionate number of blacks executed in less racially enlightened times. Unfortunately for death penalty opponents, murderers and victims both tend to be black in disproportionate numbers -- black and also poor. Economics has always had more to do with crime and punishment than race.

But there are other factors that separate the electric chair cultures of Coppola and Cagney -- factors speaking to the increasing public discomfort with the notion of death itself. In the church-oriented rural America of the 1930s, when most people affirmed an afterlife and died at home with their families around them, death was a close, obvious and inevitable part of life. The most dreaded aspect of execution was its rush to divine judgment. The gruesome details were sensationalized in part as a grisly suggestion of the Dantesque horrors awaiting murderers in the world beyond. There was always a priest there to remind Cagney.

But in the urban, secular 1980s, talk of divine judgment discomfits even the virtuous, and death has become an embarrassing intrusion in a culture of immediacy and youth -- a sort of biological faux pas. We fence it off in hospitals and nursing homes, euphemize it with "sleep rooms` and "funeral parlors` and deny its inevitability with bullet-dodging TV superheroes who never grow old. We even divorce death from our kitchens: the freshly killed chickens of grandfather's day have been disguised and sanitized into vacuum- sealed packages from which any visible trace of former life has been erased. For those unwilling to confront even the death of a chicken, the court-ordered death of a human -- albeit a murderer -- obviously causes problems.

Even among the penal officials in Virginia, who carried out their distasteful chore with subdued dispatch, there was a faint tone of apology and a firm refusal to discuss details. Few of us appear willing to confront the uncomfortable truth that death is an inevitable part of every human day, even that of the vegetarian who piously munches the life from his bean sprouts. It is not whether we kill or die but when and how, and ironically, no one appeared to understand that better than Frank Coppola.

`I don't fear death,` he told U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner just before his execution. "I mean, that's no macho image or anything. That's my own personal belief. . . . Being electrocuted . . . does not harbor any great fear for me. . . . It is the means that justifies the end. . . .`

Whatever else he achieved or failed in his life, Frank Coppola -- a man who denied any religious faith -- was, by even the accounts of his would-be saviors, more than ready to confront death, electrodes and all. Those of us who killed him for what he did had less conviction. In the end, his execution was "tastefully` removed from sight, as bloodless and Saran-Wrapped a deception of modern life as a tidy, oven-ready roaster chilling in a supermarket bin.

The writer is a member of The Post's metropolitan staff