The public defender's secretary loves and marries a released criminal; he is convicted of robbery and murder but escapes before his execution.
A grocer complains that a policeman takes an apple from him every day. Public defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane) won't trade his secretary Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney) to the District Attorney. Stephen gets Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) out of prison after three years and three convictions. Eddie and Joan get married and go on a honeymoon. Hotel clerk Ethan finds Eddie's picture in a magazine as wanted, and his wife Hester makes them leave. Eddie shows Joan the house they are buying, and she takes a bus. Eddie is late with his truck job and is fired. Joan calls Eddie from the house and tells him to make the down payment. Eddie tries to get his job back but is not given a chance and hits the employer. Eddie is desperate and considers joining his bank-robbing friends.
Men wearing gas masks use gas to rob a bank truck and kill six guards. Eddie goes to Joan and shows her the news photo of his hat but says he did not do it; he wants to run, but she persuades him to give himself up. Eddie is sentenced to the electric chair. Stephen works on an appeal, but Joan's sister Bonnie Graham (Jean Dixon) tells him not to, because Joan is going to have a baby. Joan visits Eddie, who asks her to bring a gun; but Father Dolan (William Gargan) has her give him the gun. With his last meal Eddie finds a note about a gun in a mattress. Eddie cuts himself with a tin cup but is revived by Dr. Hill (Jerome Cowan). Eddie disrupts and is put in isolation, where he finds the gun. The warden learns that Eddie is in the yard with Dr. Hill, who says open the gates. A teletype reports that the bank truck was found, and Eddie was proven innocent; but Eddie does not believe the warden. Father Dolan goes to Eddie, who shoots him. They open the gates, and Father Dolan dies.
At the time of execution Joan puts powder in water, but Eddie calls and tells her to come to him. Joan finds Eddie wounded. She drives him and robs a store and later gets gas in a hold-up. Joan's baby is born, and Eddie writes to Stephen so they can meet Bonnie. Joan gives her baby to Bonnie and Stephen but refuses to take the ship they offer her. She goes with Eddie but is identified. Near the border police shoot their car, and Eddie carries Joan in the woods. She dies, and Eddie is shot. He hears the voice of Father Dolan saying he is free, and the gates are open.
This tragedy shows the desperation of a convict who cannot get a job after being fired for the slightest negligence. Director Fritz Lang, a refugee from Nazi Germany, conveys a violent and dark world in which small faults are escalated into major crimes by the pressure of circumstances.