A woman on trial for murder recalls how poverty caused her to become involved with gangsters.
A prosecutor asks a jury to give Mary Martin (Loretta Young) death for murder. While waiting Mary recalls her past. She was born in 1910, and her mother dies when she is nine. In 1923 she is caught stealing and put away for three years. Then she succumbs to a man, and Bunny (Una Merkel) says a woman has to live. The next year Leo (Ricardo Cortez) gives Mary $50 for being a lookout; but she gives it to the Salvation Army and is thrown out of her room. Mary can't find a job and goes to Bunny and Leo, who gives her food and wine.
Two years later Angelo (Warren Hymer) is given a hard time and slaps Bunny. Mary criticizes Leo for ordering Churchill, who works for her. Leo kisses Mary and says she belongs to him. In a gambling club Tom Mannering (Franchot Tone) helps his friend Sam (Andy Devine) and sees Mary. Bunny pretends to be sick, while Mary tries to get a check approved. Leo and Angelo come in with guns, and Angelo shoots a cop (Robert Emmett O'Connor). Mary keeps Leo from shooting Tom. Tom helps Mary out the window and takes her to his house nearby. Mary sees a painting she likes and tells Tom that she can't go back, asking him for a job. Mary works at Tom's law firm as a stenographer. Leo's gangsters take Mary to Leo, who says she'll come back. Mary's boss Tindle (Ivan F. Simpson) starts to assault Mary, but Tom comes in. Tindle leaves, and Mary goes to Tom, who kisses her.
While dining, Tom tells Mary that he loves her. The cop, who has recovered, sees Mary and makes a call. Mary asks the cop to leave Tom alone. Then she tells Tom he is a fool, and the marriage is off. Police interrogate Mary about Leo and put her in jail. In 1930 Mary works in prison and sees Tom's wedding reported in the newspaper. She gets out in 1933 and wears out her shoes looking for a job. Leo asks Mary to come back and buys her a fur coat. At a night club Tom's wife Barbara (Martha Sleeper) complains he won't stay out late. She goes with Sam. Tom sees Mary. Leo and Tom fight, but they are separated. Mary goes to Tom and says that Leo will kill him. Tom kisses her. Barbara calls Tom and says that Sam was shot dead. Mary goes back to Leo, who says that Tom got bumped off. Leo sees in the newspaper who got killed and plans to go after Tom. Mary tells him not to bother, whispers, and kisses him. Angelo comes in announcing that Bunny had his child. Leo realizes that Mary lied and slaps her. Mary shoots Leo dead.
The jury comes in with a guilty verdict; but Tom gets a new trial for Mary, divorces, and kisses her in jail.
In the depth of the Depression the audience can empathize with Mary's plight that only favors from the rich seem to help.