We've all seen it in the movies: the tough-guy private eye stubbing out a Camel filter on a suspect's neck and barking, "We can do this the easy way or the hard way." Or, at the other end of the B-movie moral spectrum, the sneering Gestapo captain, brandishing a hypodermic needle and chortling (with back-lot Bavarian inflection), "Vee haf vays to make you talk!"

Interrogation, as depicted in pop culture, invariably works. Sooner or later, the detainee cracks, spills his guts and lets slip some crucial plot-turning piece of information. A crime boss is nailed, an assassination plot thwarted, a deadly sneak attack nipped in the bud. The means, however mean-spirited, ultimately justify the ends.

Following the capture in Pakistan earlier this month of suspected Al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, U.S. government, law enforcement and media circles have been wrestling with how far America and its allies in the war on terrorism should go to squeeze information out of the reputed mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

With thousands of lives potentially at stake, the temptation is great to use any means necessary on Mohammed. The White House has insisted that he will be treated humanely, in accordance with standards of international law. But the administration also contends that Al Qaeda warriors are "unlawful combatants," and are therefore not protected by the provisions of the Geneva Convention governing treatment of POWs. A recent story in The Times quoted a U.S. official as saying that interrogators would be "pushing the envelope" to make Mohammed talk.

Human rights organizations already have raised alarms over allegations of torture of prisoners being held at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and of others taken into custody since Sept. 11. It's also possible that Pakistani officials already have worked Mohammed over, or that he will be put in the hands of some allied third country that won't feel squeamish about twisting his arm -- or worse.

Yet physical and psychological torture, while sometimes brutally effective, often fails to achieve its goal of getting at the truth.

Experts say that physical and/or psychological abuse may harden, rather than weaken, a prisoner's resistance to his captors. Minds clouded by pain or drugs, or addled by sleep deprivation, may have trouble recalling important details. Above all, a person under extreme physical duress may say almost anything just to stop the agony.

"Everybody breaks if it's no holds barred. It's just a matter of when. Ask men and women who were prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton," Stan B. Walters, a nationally known authority on interrogation methods, says, referring to the notorious Viet Cong prisoner of war camp.

Getting information from a criminal suspect or a captured military combatant -- accurate, timely, useful information, the kind that can keep bombs from exploding, buildings from crumbling, lives from being lost -- usually requires something far more subtle than thumbscrews, Walters and other experts say. Often it requires playing a mind game of near-diabolical skill and nuance, a blend of psychological seduction, flattery and largely feigned empathy owing more to Aristotle, the father of Western logic, with a touch of Mata Hari, than to Torquemada, the sinister head henchman of the Spanish Inquisition.

"Even in law enforcement, a goodly number think that if you ask the question in nasty enough ways, the guy's going to tell you the truth. Well, unless you've got some masochistic wimp who loves being beaten up, that ain't gonna happen," says John Hess, who in the 1980s developed a highly influential program of interrogation methods for the FBI that the agency still uses today.

From small-town deputies to federal agents, some law enforcement officials still get their ideas about interrogation from cop shows, Hess says. "The bad ones, their role model is basically designed from some media, like Kojak, or ["NYPD Blue's" Andy] Sipowicz today. They'd basically just grill 'em. They'd put a guy under the light and they'd try to make 'em look like a buffoon. That's not an interrogation. That's cross-examination. And the only person who ever got a confession in cross-examination was Perry Mason."

Less science than art, more Sigmund Freud than the Marquis de Sade, effective interrogation technique often demands perceptiveness, imagination and a knack for role-playing, experts say. Instead of coming on like Barney Fife with his knickers in a twist, Hess says, good professional interrogators should follow Aristotle's golden precepts of credibility, logical reason and emotional reason: "You persuade people using ethos, logos and pathos."

In other words, the successful interrogator in certain situations must spare the red-hot poker and spoil the suspect -- or at least pretend to. "What are the qualities that make a good interrogator?" Walters asks. "Tons of patience. The ability to set aside his own personality and his own value systems and his own beliefs, and to assume the personality of the person he's interrogating. They've got to be good communicators and great listeners."

Seeking a common bond

No one interviewed for this story doubts that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will be a tough nut to crack. So how best to crack him? A poll taken by the Christian Science Monitor shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks found that about one-third of Americans would support U.S.-government torture of terrorism suspects. A recent Wall Street Journal story on the subject of what methods may be used on Mohammed quoted a U.S. official as saying, "You're just limited by your imagination," while another suggested that "a little bit of smacky-face" could do the trick.

Bad idea, according to Christopher Dillingham, a former police vice-squad officer and adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida. He has published numerous articles in law enforcement journals on interviewing protocol and techniques and how to detect deception by criminal suspects.

"Whatever harm is done in the beginning to this person could very well defeat our purposes," Dillingham says. "If you were this suspect and suppose you were tortured for hours, days, weeks on end, would you be inclined to see your next interrogator as a fellow human being? Probably it would strengthen your resolve" not to cooperate.

Establishing a common bond of humanity can be crucial in getting a suspect to open up, Dillingham says. It may be over something trivial -- food, sports, tastes in romantic partners -- or something of deeper import, like the suspect's political worldview. "If I found out somebody liked blonds, I would get a poster of a blond to put up on my office wall," Dillingham says.

Walters, a former FBI civilian employee and corporate investigator, recalls the case of a suspected pedophile who "fought all the way to the jail." Walters arrived there just as dinner was being served: navy beans and corn bread. Soon, Walters says, he and the man were jawin' about down-home cooking. "We talked beans, we talked pot roast, we talked about when to put the taters in. In an hour and a half I had a confession. The guy [got] 64 years for molesting children."