The glamorous view of the U.S. marshals: the gun-toting, badge-thumping, peace-keeping lawmen portrayed by Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, even Ronald Reagan in the 1953 film "Law and Order."

The unglamorous view: the one from Stanley E. Morris' window, overlooking the parking lot at Tysons Corner shopping center.

Morris, director of the nation's oldest law-enforcement agency, doesn't mind being banished beyond the Beltway to a complex where his closest neighbors are Garfinkel's, Thom McAn and Real Rich Ice Cream. He asked for the job.

"I think it's the best job in federal law enforcement," the 44-year-old Justice Department official said. "I have the most interesting staff meetings of anyone in town, including the president."

Still, Morris concedes that his location on Route 7 is -- or was -- a rough gauge of bureaucratic clout.

"The Marshals Service for a long time was the low agency on the totem pole," he said. "I'm still trying to get people to spell it with one 'l,' so we've got a long way to go."

Morris said he enjoys running a "human-size agency," with 2,600 people spread across 300 offices from Guam to Alaska. Many of these offices are so small that the occupants have their hands full.

"You may be in Rapid City with two deputies," he said. "You're on your own, worrying about half of South Dakota. You have to do everything: seize property, arrest fugitives, provide assistance to witnesses."

In the public mind, though, the rough-rider image persists. It dates to 1789, when the First Congress created the U.S. marshals after only three months. The republic got along without a Department of Justice for another 80 years.

During the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, when Pennsylvania farmers refused to pay a moonshine tax, marshals were sent to enforce arrest warrants. A deputy was captured by a mob, which led President Washington to call out the militia and crush the first insurrection against the federal government.

Marshals also were called upon to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, tracking runaway slaves and returning them to their southern owners. This was unpopular in the North, but marshals faced fines if they didn't carry out their duties.

Such events are being chronicled by the agency's resident historian, Fred Calhoun, who is planning a Smithsonian exhibit for the marshals' 200th anniversary three years hence. He is the first to concede that the marshals' fabled role in taming the Wild West has been somewhat overdramatized.

"The Hollywood image of the marshals was mainly true in the Indian territories, where they provided the only law and order," Calhoun said. He said other territories had their own police, leaving the marshals to track such outlaws as Butch Cassidy and Frank James for interfering with the U.S. mails.

More recently, the marshals were on the firing line during the desegregation battles of the 1960s. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the marshals to take over the University of Mississippi campus in 1962 during the confrontation over the admission of James Meredith. Nearly 200 deputies were injured in the ensuing riot, and the marshals had to accompany the school's first black student for the rest of the year.

Today's reality is often more mundane. The marshals' main job is to guard federal prisoners before, during and after trials, until they are in permanent custody. That means long hours of boredom punctuated by bursts of high drama.

When someone escapes -- like Bernard Welch, the master burglar and convicted murderer who broke out of a Chicago prison last summer -- the marshals give chase. They were zeroing in on Pittsburgh after a pattern of Welch-style burglaries there when Welch was arrested by police in suburban Greensburg responding to a parking complaint. The agency, which helped capture 16 other fugitives last year, is always careful to share credit with local police.

The marshals got the limelight last December, when they captured 101 fugitives by luring them to the Washington Convention Center with the promise of free Redskins football tickets. The sting made headlines across the country.

They also claimed a key role in cracking the case of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele last year.

"While everyone else was looking for Mengele for 40 years, we only looked for him for three months," Morris said. "Instead of sloshing through the jungles of Paraguay, we talked to German prosecutors" and obtained search warrants for the letters that led to Mengele's remains in a Brazilian cemetery.

"We have the best understanding of the criminal mind in the federal government," Morris said. "We spend a lot of time with defendants. We sit with them in the car, we transport them, we protect them, we watch them testify."

Not all their tasks are as exciting as Nazi-hunting. There is the tedious job of managing assets seized from drug defendants and organized crime figures. The service often brings in consulting firms to handle property that includes ranches, condominiums, airplanes, banks and, in one case, a rock recording studio.

The marshals run the witness protection program, in which those who testify against the Mafia are given new identities. This leads to problems ranging from child custody disputes to dealing with witnesses who commit new crimes.

The agency also serves as de facto sheriff for the District. As agents of D.C. Superior Court, federal marshals must deliver subpoenas and carry out hundreds of court-ordered evictions each year.

Morris said that his people often are blamed for carrying out someone else's policy, just as when they were tracking down slaves before the Civil War. If the address on the eviction order is wrong, he said, "You get splattered all over the papers for putting an 83-year-old woman out on the street in 10-degree weather."