Based on William Falkner’s novel Sanctuary, a beautiful woman from an aristocratic southern family goes with a drunk man and is taken hostage by a criminal, and in a criminal trial her friend wants to call her has a witness.
At the Dixon County Courthouse a judge tells the jury that Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) did not choose to represent his client but was appointed. Benbow takes exception to that, and the judge orders his remarks deleted from the record. Benbow says they never had a chance and goes out as the jury does.
In his office Judge Drake (Guy Standing) tells Stephen Benbow that he decided the Barlow case against him. He says the laws must be enforced, but Stephen says the statute is obsolete. Drake asks him why he keeps representing every criminal. He gives him a drink and hopes his granddaughter will not be too busy for him. He asks him why he does not marry her. Stephen says she said no, and Drake urges him to ask her again.
Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is heard saying goodnight and that he is too rough, and then she comes in the door. She takes off her shoes and walks upstairs. Her grandfather asks where she has been and with whom almost all night. She says she was with Toddy Gowan who is from his college. He says that is all right, and she says goodnight.
Toddy Gowan (William Collier Jr.) is drinking and is drunk. Another man mentions her grandfather is a judge, and they quarrel briefly.
Minnie (Louise Beavers) is ironing Temple’s clothes and laughs about her.
Stephen is reading while his Aunt Jennie (Elizabeth Patterson) is knitting and talking about Temple Drake. He says he did not listen and kisses her.
In a car outside a party Toddy is kissing Temple. She says that is enough and that he is drunk. He objects to her firing up a man and then putting him off. He asks her to go somewhere, but she says no and goes into the party.
Temple tells her grandfather that Toddy had a blow-out. Stephen takes her coat for her. Temple dances with a man who says he dreamed of dancing with her. Toddy cuts in and dances with her. She touches Stephen, and he dances with her. He says she does not like to dance with him, but she disagrees and takes him to walk outside on the porch. She asks if he is going to kiss her, and he says no. She says she likes him best of anyone. He asks her to be honest with him, and he asks her to marry him. She says no. He asks why not, and she says she likes him too much. She says it is her, not him. She can’t explain and says it is something inside her. She wanted to marry him since she was little, but she can’t. She loves him. She feels she is two people, and one of them she hates because she does not know what it wants. She apologizes and walks back inside. Toddy comes to her, and she asks him to take her somewhere. He says she needs a drink and says he knows a place.
Toddy is driving as she cuddles next to him.
Stephen sees graffiti and erases it.
Toddy is driving fast on a dark country road. She sees a branch on the road and screams, but he overturns the car. Temple was thrown out of the car and gets up. Toddy says he is all right, but he has blood on his forehead. He asks if it is a stick-up, and she says her grandfather is Judge Drake. Trigger (Jack La Rue) shines a flashlight at them and tells a guy to take them up to the house. She says she does not want to go, but Trigger insists they go with Tommy (James Eagles) who tells them his name. Temple says she does not have to go, but Tommy says she does need to fret. As they walk, Tommy tells how Trigger killed his dog. Temple takes off her muddy shoes and tells Tommy to keep his hands off her. They walk during a thunderstorm toward an old house that is falling apart. She says she wants to go home, but Toddy says he wants a drink. Tommy says that Lee will get them back to town. It starts raining, and Temple goes on the porch and looks in a window.
She sees a blind old man given a jug. Trigger takes out his pistol and shoots the jug. Toddy is sitting at a table with Trigger, Lee Goodwin (Irving Pichel), and another man. Ruby Lemarr (Florence Eldridge) comes in and complains about Trigger shooting. She wishes Lee had left him in the city where he belongs. Trigger tells her to make them some coffee, and she goes out.
Temple looks around in the rain and goes in a door to the kitchen and sees Ruby. She says she is with Mr. Gowan. Ruby tells her to get out, but Temple says it is raining. She asks if her husband will take them back to town. Ruby suggests she use her feet. Lee comes in asking for the coffee and is drunk. He takes Temple’s hand, and she and Ruby tell him to leave her alone. He slaps Ruby and staggers out of the kitchen. Temple hears a baby crying and asks why she keeps it in a wood-box. Ruby says it is so that the rats won’t get it. Temple threatens to tell the soldiers. Ruby takes the lamp, and Temple follows her into the dining-room.
Temple calls to Toddy, and the other man has Temple sit in his lamp. Toddy tries to object, and the man knocks him down. Lee tells the man to quit it, and the man asks who will make him. Lee stands up, and the man says all right. Ruby suggests that Lee take Temple and Toddy to town. Lee agrees, but Trigger says he is taking the drunk but not the girl. Lee accepts that and tells them to fix her up a place to sleep. Ruby asks Trigger if he is going on the truck. He stands up and goes out the window. Temple says she wants to go, and she goes outside.
On the porch Ruby asks Temple if she is coming, and she follows her back into the house. She takes her to a bedroom and lights a lamp. She tells her to take off her wet things and gives her an overcoat to use. Temple thanks her, and Ruby goes out. Temple takes off her wrap and feels that her dress is wet. She strips off the dress and lays it on the bed frame. She puts on the overcoat and sits on the bed. The other man comes in and tells her to give him the coat. She does not move, and he takes it off her. She wraps a blanket around herself. Tommy comes in and tells the man to stop pestering her. The man goes out and accuses him of always snooping around. Tommy says he will be watching her, and he goes out as Ruby comes back in. She calls Temple a fool and says they are all fighting over her. She says she is the type who gets a kick out of leading on kids. She says these are not kids, but men. She says Lee is hers, and he was in Leavenworth for shooting a soldier. She got him out and asks how she did it. She says Temple would not do that. Ruby hears something and puts out the light. Trigger comes in the dark room with a cigarette. Temple says, “No.” Trigger lights a match and tells Tommy to get out. Ruby lights the lamp, and Trigger goes out, followed by Tommy. Temple trembles and cries. Ruby says she knew it was Trigger by the smell of stuff on his hair. Ruby tells Temple to go with her to the barn where they will not bother her. They leave the room.
In the morning a man in nice clothes comes into the barn. The blind man walks past him. Tommy tells Temple that Lee is back and going to sleep. He says he will take her to town later. Tommy says he will be out there watching. Temple lies on straw. A window is opened, and Trigger climbs in. Tommy opens the door, and Trigger shoots him dead. Trigger moves toward Temple, and she screams.
Ruby is putting water in a bucket and sees a car go by with Trigger driving and Temple in a daze. Ruby carries the bucket to the house and tells Lee what she saw. Lee says she saw nothing. He is going to tell the sheriff that Tommy was shot dead.
Trigger stops at a gas station and orders ten. He gives Temple a cup of coffee and tells her to drink it. The man says the bill is $1.95, and Trigger gives him $5 and takes off.
Trigger is driving and tells Temple to fix herself.
Minnie at the door tells Miss Reba (Jobyna Howland) that Trigger is there, and she opens the door and tells them to come in. Trigger asks for a room, and Miss Reba asks how long they are staying. Temple says she does not want to stay there. Trigger says he is not keeping her. She can go back to her town. He walks toward her, and she asks him to leave her alone. He says he has not hurt her. He says she hollers and faints, but she is crazy about him. He says she will stay because she likes it there.
Among large trunks a worker sees Toddy who stands up and asks how he got there. The worker notices the blood on his face. Toddy asks what town he is in, and the worker says Dixon. Toddy finds out the next train is in twenty minutes and says he must get out of there.
In a newspaper a personal item says that Gowan went to Virginia. Aunt Jennie reads that Judge Drake said that Temple went to Philadelphia. In a barbershop men wonder what happened to Temple who has not been seen since that dance. Aunt Jennie talks to her cats.
Lee Godwin is in court for murder and pleads not guilty. He says he does not want a lawyer and has no money. The judge appoints Benbow to defend him.
Benbow asks Lee what happened, and he says he did not do it. Benbow says he must talk to him so that he can save him. Jim says nothing will save him. He shows Benbow a bullet that came from a hotel across the street right past his ears. He says he got the message to shut up. Benbow says he will probably hang. Ruby tells Lee he must talk, and she says she will tell regardless of Trigger. Benbow asks about Trigger, and Ruby tells him where he can find him.
Benbow goes there, and Minnie lets him in. He knocks on his door and goes in. He sees Trigger and Temple not fully dressed. He asks what she is doing there, but she does not say anything. Benbow says he heard Trigger is a tough guy, but he is going to beat him up. Trigger puts his hand in his coat pocket where he has a gun. Temple sees this and tells Benbow not to interfere because it is not his business. Stephen tells her to get out of his way. She says he did not bring her there, and she stayed because she wanted to be there. She tells him to go away and leave them alone. She says he is angry because she prefers Trigger to him. She tells Trigger not to pay any attention to him. She says he is jealous, and she kisses Trigger who says okay and asks Stephen what else they can do for him. Stephen says he is Lee’s attorney in the murder case. Trigger says they were here at the time, and Temple backs him up. Stephen gives him a subpoena and says he will give them both a chance to say that again under oath. He goes out, and Trigger rips up the subpoena and tells her not to worry. He says they have nothing on them, and she says she heard him. He takes out his gun and implies that Benbow came close to dying. He asks her if he is stuck on her, but he is glad she came through for him. He was surprised because he thought she looked down on him and hated him. He had her figured that way and now thinks he was wrong. He says when she kissed him, the subpoena does not mean a thing. He offers her diamond rings. She has put on her hat and says she is leaving. He says she put on an act so he would not kill Benbow. She says yes, and he realizes he fell for it. He says she will put her finger on him. She says she is not going back; she is going to disappear. He says she is not going anywhere and pushes her into a chair. He calls her a double-crosser, and she says he can’t stop her. He says he can and puts out his cigarette. She shouts for him to keep away from her, and then she shoots him twice with the gun. He falls down dead, and she says she told him not to. Temple hears women talk about a shooting.
Outside the room Minnie says she heard the front door slam. Miss Reba says she heard shots.
Temple cries and sees that in Trigger’s hand is a garment of hers. She kneels down and tries to take it from him. She is upset but manages to pry it loose. She opens the door, looks, and goes out.
Temple crosses the street and gets into a cab. The driver asks where she wants to go to, and she asks him to take her 110 miles to Dixon. He says sure and drives the cab. She frets over the blood on her garment.
The prosecutor asks a doctor about the bullet he took from the body of the deceased. The doctor says the bullet is a 38 and could have come from that gun. Benbow moves that the case be dismissed because of insufficient evidence. The judge denies the motion and tells him to proceed with his defense. Benbow asks Lee to change his mind and asks Ruby to persuade him. A man gives him a message, and he asks for a short recess which is granted.
Benbow goes into the office of Judge Drake, and he sees Temple there. The judge complains about his calling her as a witness in a murder case. Benbow asks if he spoke to her about this case. The judge says there is no need. Temple asks her grandfather to let him talk with Stephen for a few minutes, and, after warning Stephen about his honor, he leaves the room. She tells him he cannot call her, and if he does, she will lie. He says he has to call her, and she argues that he does not care about his bootlegger client. She says he is angry with her and wants to hurt her. He denies that, and she asks him to leave him out of it. She says only he knows what she did. She asks for a chance to live it down. She will be disgraced, and she reminds him that he asked her to marry him. She pleads for him not to do that to her. He says it is not her or him, but it is their duty before God not to let them execute a man for what he did not do. She says he does not realize what he is asking her to do. He asks her to take her medicine and destroy the evil streak in her. She says she can’t testify because she killed Trigger after he tried to keep her there. She says that will come out in the questioning. She says if he still thinks it is his duty, then he can call her. She goes out, and a man tells him they are waiting for him.
Benbow goes back into the courtroom and sits down. He sees Temple and Judge Drake come in and sit down. Benbow tells the jury that he will not outline the defense, but after hearing the evidence they will find him not guilty. He calls Temple Drake to the stand, and Judge Drake says it is an outrage. She swears to tell the truth. Benbow asks how long her family has lived there, and she says before the Civil War. He asks if her father died fighting in the World War, and she says yes. An objection is made, and the judge says her character has not been questioned. Benbow asks if she is proud of her family, and she says she is. He says they are willing to make sacrifices for the truth, and she agrees. He asks if a Drake would tell the truth after taking an oath even if doing so destroyed oneself. He says she is a Drake and asks her if she wants to act like one. He asks her to tell where she was the morning— He stops and tells the court that he withdraws the witness. The judge finds this irregular and unwise. He tells Miss Drake to step down. She stands up but says that she wants to answer and tell everything. She admits she was there. She says Toddy took her, and their car was smashed. He went away and left her. She got frightened, and Ruby took her to the barn. She could not sleep. At dawn Trigger came in and at her. Tommy looked in, and Trigger shot him. Then Trigger attacked her. The judge asks why she did not say so before. She says she did not go home but went to the city with Trigger until this week. The judge asks if she was a prisoner. They ask where Trigger is now, and she says she killed him and faints. Benbow picks her up and carries her out of the courtroom, telling Judge Drake to be proud of her because he is.
This drama depicts the southern code of honor in conflict with a violent criminal. The young woman is adventurous and took chances that had serious consequences, though they were not her fault. A young and idealistic lawyer is faced with a difficult choice and respects what his beloved did even though it may have ruined her reputation.