Based on Ernest Hemingway's story, an insurance investigator unravels the crimes and double-crosses that led to a murder by hit men.
Two men go into a diner and say they are going to kill the Swede across the street; but he does not come in, and they leave. Nick (Phil Brown) runs and warns the Swede (Burt Lancaster), who says he is staying and once did something wrong. After Nick leaves, two men come in and shoot the Swede several times.
Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) asks questions. Nick says a week before the Swede was working at the gas station; but after he served a man (Albert Dekker), he felt sick and went home. Reardon goes to talk to his beneficiary, Mary Ellen Daugherty (Queenie Smith). She saw the Swede in a hotel in 1940 and stops him from jumping out the window after a woman left him. Reardon learns that the Swede was arrested by Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), who says he saw the Swede box. The Swede is knocked out, and his hand is broken. Sam tells him he can't fight anymore. The Swede declines to go with Lilly (Virginia Christine), who is now Sam's wife. She tells how the Swede took her to a party, where he was smitten by Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). Sam sees Kitty in a restaurant, finds her jewelry in soup, and arrests her. The Swede sees Sam and says he stole it; he hits Sam and runs out. The Swede got three years.
Reardon attends the Swede's funeral with Sam, who identifies the thief Charleston (Vince Barnett). Reardon questions Charleston, who was in a cell with the Swede. After both get out, Charleston tells the Swede about a meeting, and Kitty is there. The boss (Albert Dekker) says it is a big payroll robbery; Charleston declines and leaves. Reardon shows his boss Kenyon (Donald MacBride) the news article about the robbery. Reardon says that the Swede used Kitty's green handkerchief as a face mask. A few days later she left him, and he tried to jump out the window. Kenyon gives Reardon a week to find the money.
The robbers play cards, and the jealous Swede hits the boss. Blinky (Jeff Corey) tells Reardon and Sam that he shouldn't have hit him. Later the boss shows Blinky the money, but the Swede holds them up and runs off with the $254,912. Reardon goes to the Swede's room. Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) arrives and searches the room. Reardon holds a gun and questions him, but Dum-Dum kicks him and gets the gun. Dum-Dum runs out into a shoot-out with police.
Reardon tells Sam that the boss is Big Jim Colfax. Reardon goes to Colfax and tells him that the police shot Dum-Dum. Reardon says that Kitty left the Swede and took the money. Reardon and Sam wait for a call from Kitty, and Reardon arranges to meet her to make a deal. He asks her for the money. She says she has a home and husband and could only pay $70,000. Reardon wants Colfax. Kitty tells how she went to the Swede and tells him that Colfax and the others are going to double-cross him, and they kiss. Kitty tells Reardon that she wants to leave and goes to the bathroom. The two killers approach Reardon, but Sam kills them. Sam, Reardon, and police go to a big house, where Colfax is shot. Reardon says he was Kitty's partner and husband. Colfax says he had the Swede killed so that the others would not find out. Reardon's boss understands and thanks him.
This intricate story of criminals and the penalties
they suffer is seen from the viewpoint of an insurance investigator,
representing the shift in power to the financial business.