Director John Huston adapted W. R. Burnett’s novel about a released convict who draws together several men from the underworld for a big jewelry heist; but as police go after them, their flaws undo them.
Bartender Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) hides a gun for a man who is arrested. A witness refuses to identify Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) in a line-up. Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) arrives and tells Cobby (Marc Lawrence) he has a plan for a big caper. Dix owes Cobby $2,300, and Gus offers to loan it to him. Doll (Jean Hagen) asks Dix if she can stay with him for a few days.
Doc tells Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) about the jewelry heist that will cost $50,000 and could make $500,000. Emmerich calls Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) to collect debts for him. Dix tells Doll he wants to go back to his farm. Dix gives Cobby a roll of cash. Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) tells Cobby to close up because of Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire).
Brannom comes back with no money, and Emmerich says he is broke and plans to abscond with the jewelry. Brannom goes in for half and says Cobby will put up the $50,000. Cobby and Doc offer safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) $25,000 and advance him $15,000. Doll kisses Dix and leaves. Doc tells Louis, Dix, and Gus what to do. Privately Doc tells Dix that he does not trust Emmerich.
Louis goes down a manhole and breaks through a wall. He lets in Doc and Dix. Louis uses nitro to blow open the vault and drills into the safe. Doc carries the jewels in a suitcase. Dix knocks out the guard; but his gun goes off and wounds Louis in the belly. As police arrive, they go out the back and drive off.
Emmerich tells Doc and Dix that he has to raise the money and asks them to leave the jewels with him. Brannom pulls a gun. As Doc tosses the bag, Dix shoots Brannom dead and is wounded. Doc tells Emmerich to offer the insurance company the jewels for $250,000.
Gus tries to console Louis’ wife. Emmerich dumps the body off a dock. Gus calls Dix to leave the area because cops are searching. Doc says that Emmerich will get the money on Monday.
Two police tell Emmerich that Brannon’s body was found and question him about the robbery. Emmerich says he visited Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe) in his cottage. They leave, and he calls her to lie for him. Dix and Doc see Doc’s wanted picture in the newspaper.
On a street a cop stops Doc, and Dix knocks him out. They go to Doll’s place. A taxi driver tells the Commissioner where he took Doc. Lt. Ditrich goes to question Cobby, who threatens to expose the cop. Ditrich slaps Cobby.
Emmerich offers to take Angela on a trip, but the Commissioner comes in and says Cobby confessed. Angela tells the truth. Emmerich asks to call his wife and shoots himself. In jail Gus threatens Cobby. Police find Louis at home. Doc says goodbye to Dix and leaves, taking a taxi to Cleveland. Doll insists on going with bleeding Dix. Doc lingers at a rest stop and is arrested. Dix collapses in the car, and Doll takes him to a doctor, who calls the police. They leave and drive to his farm, where he collapses.
This drama explores the world of crime and suggests that police are needed to protect people from these violent beasts in the urban jungle.