Based on W. R. Burnett's novel, a pardoned convict leads a gang of robbers while falling in love with two women before bringing on his violent end.
Bank-robber Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is pardoned from prison, and ex-cop Jake Kranmer (Barton MacLane) tells him to go to Big Mac in California, giving him a car. Earle drives to the Sierras. He finds Red Hattery (Arthur Kennedy) and tells him to get rid of Marie Garson (Ida Lupino), who tells Earle that Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) told her what is going on. Earle lets her stay, and she brings him breakfast. Louis shows Earle the hotel layout, and Earle warns him not to talk as he looks over a machine gun.
In Los Angeles Earle sees a family he met on the road and helps them. He learns Velma (Joan Leslie) needs an operation on her foot. Earle thanks ailing Big Mac (Donald MacBride) for getting him sprung and promises to bring him the jewels. Earle takes Doc (Henry Hull) to see Velma. Pa (Henry Travers) tells Earle that Velma has a fella back east. Doc tells Earle it will cost $400 to fix Velma's foot. Marie tells Earle that Babe (Alan Curtis) fought Red and hit her. Earle takes Red's gun and insists they obey him. Marie stays in Earle's cabin and hears him talking in his sleep about crashing out. She tells him she left her abusive father and pleads to stay with him. She rides with Earle to Los Angeles. Earle visits recovering Velma and asks to marry her; but she says she has a guy.
Earle, Red, Babe, and Marie leave to rob the hotel where Louis works. The dog follows, and Earle lets Marie take him. While Red and Babe work on the safe, an officer enters and is shot by Earle, who gets the jewels and sends Louis with Red and Babe; their car crashes and burns. Marie wants to stay with Earle. He takes the jewels to Mac, but Jake says Mac is dead. Jake holds up Earle, who shoots him dead and is wounded. Doc treats Earle, who goes to see Velma. She is dancing and is going to marry Lon, who offers to pay back Earle. Marie follows the dog in to meet Velma. Earle takes the jewels to a fence and keeps a ring for Marie.
A reward of $10,000 is offered for Earle, who sees his photo in the paper and knocks out a man who recognized him. Earle takes Marie to a bus. He holds up a store and drives away. Earle avoids police, who chase his car into the mountains. At a road block Earle leaves his car and shoots from behind rocks. Marie hears the news on radio, goes there, and is arrested, refusing to yell for Earle to give up. The dog goes to Earle, who calls to Marie and is shot by a sniper. Marie cries and realizes that Earle is free.
This crime story, like that of Dillinger, shows the
futility of violence that bring destruction on others and its
perpetrators. Yet even as he plans and carries out his crimes,
the audience can feel sympathy for the human qualities of Earle,
indicating the complexity of human nature.