Based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, a politician's partner finds his boss suspected of murder and figures out how the man was killed.
Janet Henry (Veronica Lake) criticizes politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy). Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) warns Paul not to back Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) of the reform party. Muscleman Jeff (William Bendix) helps Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) see Paul, who makes a call to close down Nick's club. Paul dines with Ralph Henry and Janet. Ralph tells his son Taylor Henry (Richard Denning) not to anger Paul and to get a job. Ed comes in and meets Janet. Opal Madvig (Bonita Granville) asks Ed for money and gives it to Taylor, who calls Nick he has $500 for him. Ed comes in and makes Opal go home to Paul. Opal warns Ed that Paul is going to kill Taylor, and Ed finds his body outside the house. Ed asks Paul about it. Nick warns Ralph that Paul killed his son. Janet tells Opal that her brother did it. Ed calls on District Attorney Farr (Donald MacBride) and intimidates him. Paul quarrels with Ed. Janet calls on Ed, who accuses her of slumming. She hides as Paul comes in. Ed says he is going to New York. They go for a beer and quarrel over supporting Henry. Ed goes to Nick, who offers him $20,000 and a gambling place to run, but Ed gets information. Nick has Jeff knock out Ed and hit him again to make Ed talk to Matthews. Ed starts a fire and escapes out the window.
Paul visits Ed in the hospital. Opal asks Ed if Paul killed Taylor, but Ed doubts it. Ed flirts with the nurse before Janet and Paul visit. Janet has a diamond ring. Janet asks Ed for help, but he says no. Ed goes to Matthew's place and finds Nick, Jeff, and Opal there too. Ed tells Eloise Matthews (Margaret Hayes) that Matthews will print Opal's accusation of Paul because of Nick even though it isn't true. Eloise gives Ed a drink as the others go to bed. Matthews sees her kiss Ed and shoots himself. Ed finds his letter making Nick his executor and burns it. Paul defends Ed from Jeff. Paul tells Ed he got The Observer shut up. On the street they see Sloth murdered. Paul tells Ed he killed Taylor in a fight. Ed traces the accusatory letters to Janet's typewriter, and she kisses him. Ed visits Paul in jail and says Janet is against him. Ed finds Jeff in a bar and goes to his room. Nick comes in, and Jeff says he killed Sloth. Jeff chokes Nick; Ed holds a gun and sends for cops. Ed says Paul did not kill Taylor but is protecting Janet. When Ed and Farr arrest Janet, her father Ralph confesses he killed his son by accident. Paul is released. Janet asks Ed to take her with him as Paul comes in and sends them to a preacher without his ring.
This early film noir reflects renewed admiration for
tough guys as it exposes some dark corners of power politics.