Directed by Elia Kazan, a Navy doctor and a police captain work together to find who killed a man with a dangerous disease that could spread easily.
At night men are playing poker, and a newcomer who is winning says he is feeling very bad. He tries to leave, but Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel) says that Blackie (Jack Palance) does not like anyone walking out of a game. Fitch tells Blackie he will get him back. Blackie examines a card and sees something he does not like. Outside Blackie tells Fitch and Poldie that he wants that money. The three men chase the stranger across railroad tracks and corner him in an alley. He kicks Poldie and pulls a knife, but he is shot dead by Blackie. Poldie gives the money to Blackie.
Police have found the victim in water by a dock. His body is transported to the coroner in the morgue. The coroner begins examining the body and tells a friend it will take some time. He makes a man get out of the room and closes the door.
Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) is painting a drawer, and he lets his little son paint. Clint’s wife Nancy Reed (Barbara Bel Geddes) tells Clint he has a call. The boy gets his father to give him a quarter for a movie. Clint goes in and says he does not want to work on his day off, but he will come down. The boy comes in for lunch and says he is going to a movie. Clint puts on his navy uniform, and Nancy says she got the quarter back from the boy. She is concerned about their bill at the store. She fixes his collar. He asks her to let Tommy have the quarter for the movie and kisses her goodbye.
Dr. Reed looks into a microscope and consults with an expert. He says it is a pure culture and tells them to keep people away from the body. He orders the body cremated and everything he touched sterilized. He asks a policeman who had anything to do with the body and orders them lined up. Reed says he is inoculating them. He is questioned and says the victim may have had a communicable disease.
Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) comes into a meeting and sits down. Dr. Reed is explaining how pneumonic plague spreads easier than bubonic plague which is spread by rats. Warren says he died of two bullet holes. Reed says he had the body destroyed. He says they need to find the man who shot him, and Warren admits that someone carried the body to the Canal Street pier. The police say they will have a hard time finding the killer. Reed says they have two days to find the killer, and Ben says the only way they could find him that fast is by telling the press. Reed says that could cause a panic. The police mobilize their resources to try to find the killer soon. Everyone leaves except Warren and Reed, who hopes he was not too rough. He says it is very serious. Warren is worried what he will do if they do not find the killer. As they are walking in the hall, the reporter Neff (Dan Riss) tries to get the story from them without success. Warren asks Reed where he is going, and Reed says he wants to go with him.
In the police station suspects are being questioned at several desks. Neff listens, and one of them is Fitch who says he never saw the victim in the photo. Warren is given information about the victim, and Reed says he probably came in on a ship. Reed makes Warren let him give him a shot. Warren tells Reed there is little chance of finding the murder among the criminals they brought in. Reed persuades Warren to let him buy him coffee.
They sit at a counter and talk. Warren does not like Reed, but Reed points out they both work for the government and don’t make much. Reed suggests he offer a reward and immunity for information. Reed asks if he can do something on his own, and Warren says no. Reed says he won’t wait and stalks out.
Fitch asks Angie if she got his things. They go in a bar, and Blackie comes down the stairs. Fitch says he packed for him. Blackie asks if she is coming, and Fitch says she is his wife. Blackie tells her to stay away from the machines. Blackie says he told Fitch to bring Poldie, but Fitch says he does not want to go. Blackie asks where Poldie got money to take a dame out. Fitch says they are picking everybody up, but Blackie says they won’t pick him up. Blackie suspects the victim brought something in that the police are looking for and that his cousin Poldie has it. Blackie says he saved his life and does not want anything put over on him. He tells Fitch to find Poldie. Fitch tries to leave, and Blackie grabs him. He says the two are not leaving town. Fitch is scared and says he will find him. He leaves with Angie as Blackie warns him not to leave town.
At night in an overcoat Reed mixes with a crowd of men waiting for information about shipping jobs. He asks to make an announcement and is handed a microphone. He offers $50 to anyone who can tell him anything about the man in a photo. He says he is not a policeman. A man tells Reed they will not talk. Reed says he will be next door until seven.
Reed is sitting at the counter, and a young woman asks to speak to him. She asks about the reward and says a man told her to bring him to him. He goes with her at dawn to a wharf and a boat. He shows her the photo and asks if her friend or she has seen the man. A man comes in and asks who he is. Reed says he is a doctor. She tries to mediate with the sailor Charlie who says he never saw him. She says he told her that the man was sick, and Charlie gets angry at her. Reed gives him $50 and shows him the serum. Charlie refuses to say what ship, and Reed threatens to break the needle in him. He says the ship was the Nile Queen, and Reed gives him a shot.
A plane lands on the sea, and the captain tells a man to bring them aboard. Reed and Warren question the captain, who orders them to get off the ship. The captain denies he ever saw him or smuggled anyone. Reed shouts to the crew that they will be dead on the voyage. Reed’s assistant, Lt. Paul Gafney, tells Reed there are more than a hundred rats on that ship. Reed shouts to the men about that. The captain orders the bosun to break up the meeting, but the crew refuses. An Asian tells Reed that one of the cooks has a fever. Reed says he will inoculate the men, and the captain submits. Warren questions two cooks during the inoculations.
Warren and Reed go to a restaurant, and Warren asks for the owner. He admits he serves Greek food. Warren shows him the photo, and Reed says he had a contagious disease. The proprietor does not know and asks his wife. Warren says it is futile to go to so many restaurants. The wife tells her husband that he was there but that they should not tell the others. The owner says she did not recognize him, and Reed and Warren leave in a car. Blackie arrives walking and gets information from a midget.
Blackie goes in, and Fitch points to Poldie and says he found him. Blackie sits down and picks up something to eat. Poldie says he does not feel well. Blackie sends Poldie’s younger brother Vince (Tommy Cook) out to buy him something. Poldie says the man killed was nothing and did not bring anything in. Blackie asks why the police are searching so hard. Blackie looks at the label on Poldie’s shirt and says he is lying. Blackie says he trusts no one. A blonde woman comes in and asks Blackie privately for $100. He gives her the money as Vince comes back. Poldie runs out. Blackie tells Fitch that they will find him.
At night a police car parks, and Reed and Warren walk out on a dock. Reed asks a man why the woman called him Charlie. A policeman calls to them about an emergency call. Police tell Warren they will have him in a few minutes. Reed comes out of a room and says the woman died of the disease. Reed refuses to let the husband go into the room. He is the restaurant owner Mefaris, and they ask him why he lied and to tell them about the man. Warren shakes him, and he says he knew Poldie.
Reed leaves Ben in charge, and he leaves with Warren for the Gloria Hotel. Neff hears this.
Warren and Reed follow a man to Poldie’s room which they search. Warren questions the man who admits a couple guys were looking for him, but he says he does not know who they are. Neff arrives and asks for the story. They ask what he knows. Neff asks Reed why the story was not released to the press. Reed explains it is pneumonic plague and that he can’t let him have the story. Neff says they are crazy because the public has a right to know what is going on. He asks if the woman could have been saved. Neff says his editor does not have the story, and Warren has Neff arrested. He complains but is taken away. Reed asks policemen if the reporter could make trouble for Warren, but they say no.
At night Nancy finds Reed in the garage, and he warns her to stay away from him. He tells her he can’t pay the bill because he spent the money. He is taking off his uniform. She remains calm and says he scolds her when he is tired. He asks her for coffee. He puts his uniform on a high shelf and in his robe goes into the house. He tells her he is going to take a shower and leave. She asks if he slept the night before. He tells her about the plague, and she says he can handle it. She asks him what is eating him. He says he is fed up and is afraid he will fall asleep. He tells her not to let him fall asleep. She pours coffee for him. He says he put down Warren, but he is four times the man he is. He says he does it to her, and she agrees that he does. She says he should stop thinking like a kid. She says he is lucky because he is doing what he wanted to do. She says he feels guilty sometimes because he has been missing something and takes it out on whoever is around, usually her. She advises him to stop feeling sorry for himself. Because of the plague he is the most important man in town. He asks how she figured all that out. She says she is going to have another child and asks if he minds. He is lying down and warns her to stay away from him. She says they will work out the money. She likes him and thinks he should get some of what he wants.
At night Reed in his uniform meets Warren outside. Mayor Murray says his office is crawling with press and asks Warren why he arrested Neff, who has been released. Reed says he did it on his authority, and the mayor asks what authority is that. The mayor says he is an advisor and should limit his authority to his duties. Warren says they learned a friend of the victim is Poldie. The mayor got a statement from Dr. Mackie, and they tell Reed they want to inform the public and asks if he agrees. Reed says no. He says that could cause people with the plague to leave the city. Reed explains they are all in the same community because it could be spread to other cities. The mayor agrees with Reed, and they discuss how to control Neff’s story. A mayor’s assistant says he is taking his children away. Reed says he is scared, and he wants to call Washington for help.
The midget introduces Poldie’s mother to Blackie. She says Poldie is dying, and Blackie sends her to tell Vince to get him.
Fitch is taking care of Poldie, and Blackie comes in. Blackie says they have to get Poldie well and that Vince went for a doctor. Blackie keeps Fitch from leaving. Blackie asks Poldie what the man brought in and slaps him and chokes him. A nurse comes in and asks why they are there. She tells them to leave and says he is going to a hospital in an ambulance. Vince comes in with a doctor. Blackie says he is staying there, and Fitch backs him up. The doctor persuades the nurse that they can treat him there. The doctor has Vince escort the nurse out. The doctor says he needs an oxygen tent but cannot get one because he is persona non grata. He tells Blackie to take him down to his car.
Outside the nurse tells Reed, and he tries to keep Blackie and Fitch from carrying Poldie down the stairs. Blackie dumps the body over the rail from a height. They run down the stairs, and Reed checks the body. Blackie and Fitch steal a truck. The man says they stole his truck, and Reed gets in a police car with Warren. They chase the truck which stops by a banana plant. Warren and Reed go in, and Warren instructs other police. Blackie and Fitch have run up to the roof where police shoot at them. They break a window and jump on bags. They run through the plant and go down a slide. Outside more police arrive. Fitch and Blackie go out on the dock, but a police car chases them back inside. Fitch sits down to rest, and a security guard welcomes Blackie to work there again. Police come in, and Blackie shoots the security guard. People run away. Outside Reed tells Warren that they should not be shot because they are no good to them dead. A police officer agrees to use gas. Inside Reed shouts to them that Poldie had plague. He can cure them. Fitch tries to persuade Blackie who searches among the bags. They walk out on boards over the water to a small boat. Reed follows them and finds Fitch in the boat, asking where the other man is. Blackie is hiding above and when seen knocks down Reed with his gun. Police are coming, and Blackie shoots at them. Warren arrives. Fitch is caught, and they continue to chase Blackie who hides under the pier and climbs on a rope toward a ship. Warren halts the police and says he is not going anywhere. Blackie falls into the water, and Warren sends in his men to fish him out.
Warren drives Reed home and offers him a bottle of perfume worth a couple hundred bucks, but Reed says no. They shake hands, and Reed gets out. He gets his mail, and a neighbor advises Reed to spend time with his son. A radio announces how Dr. Reed helped them find the men. Nancy comes out and says he did it. He kisses her, and they go in.
This realistic drama portrays civil servants—Navy doctors, police, and a mayor—responding to a serious emergency made difficult because of a murder and the criminals involved. The criminal boss has the worst values and thinks everyone only cares for oneself while the doctors and police attempt to serve the public good.