A newspaper editor and his friend are harassed by a corrupt sheriff, and the editor begins exposing them in articles. A special prosecutor is appointed, but then the editor leaves the newspaper. A hearing will determine whether the corrupt officials will be tried.
The St. Howard Intelligencer publishes freely and is edited by Haven D. Allridge (Walter Pidgeon).
Allridge leaves the town across a bridge to the county of Bridgewood to visit his daughter and her husband Randy Stauton (Cameron Mitchell). After dinner he returns to the newspaper office. He sees Wilfred Jackson (Whit Bissell) and stops to offer him a ride to town. He backs into a post accidentally; Wilfred gets in, and Allridge pulls away. A sheriff car stops them. A deputy and Sheriff Casey Burke (Thomas Gomez) ask for his driver’s license, but Allridge says he left it at home. They see a car drive by going fast, and the Sheriff laughs at Cliff and says he must be loaded. Allridge says he can have his license in an hour, but the sheriff orders the deputy to take them in.
Allridge and Jackson are taken to the jail, and the deputies go through Jackson’s wallet. Allridge says not having a license is not a jailing offense, but the Sheriff orders them held. The two are put into a cell with many prisoners for the “prisoners court.” They make Allridge stand against the wall and take off his coat. His cigarettes are taken as he is searched. They find him guilty and take his $1.50 as a fine and for costs. On Jackson they find a quarter in his back pocket and a bus token. They have rules about hiding money and beat him.
In the morning the judge Elk M. Ludens (Burt Mustin) sentences a man to pay a fine of $14. Next Jackson is charged with soliciting a ride, and the deputy says he has no money. Jackson says he was waiting for the bus, had a token, and Allridge offered him a ride. He pleads not guilty and is remanded to custody for thirty days until his trial. The deputy takes him back to the cell.
Allridge is brought out and says he will pay Jackson’s bail. The judge says Jackson has thirty days on the labor gang. The judge says ignorance of the law is no excuse, and Allridge replies that the judge is doing all right. Sheriff Burke warns Allridge he could get contempt of court. Burke says he is charged with no license, damaging public property, and running away from the scene of an accident. Nelson Tarsson (Everett Sloane) comes into the courtroom to see Burke. The judge finds Allridge guilty and fines him $50 and $18 costs. The judge offers him a lawyer. Burke has been informed who Allridge is, and he asks him why he did not tell them who he is. Allridge says he did not know there was a special law for some people. He says the kangaroo court that fined him last night is like this one. He says he will skin Burke and walks out.
In the Stauton home Allridge asks Randy to get the sheriff out of office. He suggests he get an indictment against Burke; but Randy says it is an election year, and they would stall off the hearings and quash the charge. Allridge’s daughter Peggy Stauton (Paula Raymond) asks her father to listen to Randy because he was right on Tom Kenny. She says Randy knows these men better, and Randy says they are dangerous men. Allridge says his duty is to protect a free society. Their little girl Marcia comes in, and Allridge hugs her goodnight. Randy says they will get Burke and Tarsson some time, but now he should let it drop. Allridge disagrees and says he will heat it up.
Allridge prints a story on “The Kingdom of Burke” and another on his law-mill. Next is a story on the Wilfred Jackson case.
Amboy’s is a roadhouse that has illegal gambling. High schoolers exposed a bookie joint that took their lunch money. The articles are changing public opinion.
By the bridge a truck went off the road. Allridge arrives and talks with police Captain Buck Maxwell (Karl Malden) who criticizes Burke. Allridge appeals to the police chief who says they can not do anything. Allridge says they can ask the state capital to send a special prosecutor. Maxwell says the Sheriff delivers the votes of this county.
Chick Johnson (John Hodiak) reports to the state Attorney General Morrison (Griff Barnett) and asks his secretary about his mood. She says only people have moods. Johnson goes in and offers his resignation as Morrison discusses the case. Morrison sends him to report to Captain Maxwell. Morrison refuses to accept Johnson’s resignation and that they have a case with a dozen counts. His job is not finished until the grand jury makes a decision. He puts Johnson on the regular state per diem. Johnson asks Morrison what he has accomplished in 31 years, and Morrison says he has to find out for himself.
Maxwell greets Johnson at the train station and shows him the morning paper about a playground. Johnson wonders why Allridge’s newspaper dropped out of the battle. Maxwell says that Allridge has disappeared. Johnson says he will nail Burke anyway.
At the newspaper office Johnson and Maxwell are shown a paper left in Allridge’s typewriter that mentions affidavits from 55 victims. The new editor says he had made appointments too. He opens a drawer with a key and finds it empty. He says he saw him put a folder in there. He calls and finds out that Allridge came back into the building at 2:40 a.m. He says he is probably holed up somewhere putting together a story.
At Amboy’s the Sheriff calls on Tarsson and says the special prosecutor is investigating, and they have to do something. Tarsson suggests they be careful for a few days and not use the blackjack.
Johnson goes into a bar and orders a bourbon. He sees blonde Cleo (Audrey Totter), and she brings her drink over to sit next to him at the bar. He lights her cigarette and says no one has been talking to him. He says he has been wasting his time and invites her for dinner. She mentions his name, and he realizes she may be after him. She admits she blew that one. They trade proverbs. She puts a coin in a juke box. He asks what Burke wanted her to learn from him. She says they want them to go to Amboy’s. He agrees, but she says it is too smoky. She does not want to pick up his pieces, and she warns him not to go there. She wishes they had met by accident, and she goes out.
Johnson is in a cab, and the driver tells him he has to switch cabs when going into Bridgewood County. He takes another cab.
Cleo is singing in Amboy’s while Johnson drinks at the bar. He goes over to her and says he has his angle. She says they have theirs too. Tarsson speaks to Cleo who introduces him to Johnson. Tarsson says people have been laughing about him. He asks Johnson for a private talk, and they go upstairs. In Tarsson’s office he suggests this is like a pre-trial conference. He asks what his client will be charged with, and Johnson says that would not be ethical. Tarsson says Allridge stopped his attacks. Johnson says he will charge them under Section 21. Johnson picks up a law book and leafs through it. He moves the book marker and puts the book down. While talking Tarsson notices that he put it at the chapter on conspiracy. Tarsson has him pick a card. He says Section 21 will be a tricky business. He suggests he cannot pick the card again and gives him odds. Johnson loses and gives him a dollar. Johnson goes out.
Johnson goes back to Cleo and asks what she is doing next month. Benny Amboy brings a drink to Johnson from Nelly Tarsson. Johnson implies she is different from those people there, and she is pleased. Johnson sees Tarsson coming and says goodbye to her.
The next day a man tells Johnson he will not testify, or he will say he does not remember. Johnson asks Maxwell if they are all chicken there. Maxwell says many have lost their jobs, been beat up, or had their families threatened. Johnson wants to know if Burke put the heat on Allridge. Maxwell says he is not likely to change overnight.
In an office Maxwell and Johnson gained information, and Benny Amboy comes in. Johnson asks him why he called Allridge that night. They ask what happened at Amboy’s and how he got money. Johnson says they could knock over his place on gambling charges. Maxwell asks Amboy why he has a single account in another bank, and Johnson asks if his wife knows about that. Benny says his wife knows about it. He says they are blackmailing him to make him sing. He says Allridge wanted them to sell him an ad to stop the stories. Maxwell asks what happened in that room. Benny asked what he gets, and Maxwell says they do not make deals. Benny agrees to talk, and Johnson questions him. Benny says he said what Tarsson told him.
Benny on a phone talks to Allridge. Later he takes drinks upstairs to a room where Sheriff Burke, Allridge, Tarsson, and the deputy Ned Grayton (Jonathan Cott) are meeting. Tarsson asks about the letters Allridge has collected from people who complained. Tarsson says he must turn those over to the Sheriff. Allridge says everyone has their price, but he will print the stories. Burke stands in front of the door, and Allridge tries to get around him. They fight, and the deputy pulls out his revolver and knocks Allridge on the head. They carry him to another room.
Benny says he went downstairs and did not hear anymore. Benny says he brought all his papers, but they do not want those. He leaves and asks them to remember that he did not say a word. Johnson tells Maxwell he wants to win the case, and Maxwell wants to get the leeches who have exploited innocent people.
Allridge comes to his daughter’s house, and she hugs him. He kisses her daughter and gives her a harmonica. He gives Peggy a gift too, and Randy welcomes him. Allridge says he can’t stay for dinner. He has to pack because he is going to work in Detroit on a newspaper. Randy says they made an offer he could not reject. Peggy says it does not make sense. They hear a noise, and Randy goes out. Peggy asks why he is leaving and asks why he stopped the articles about Burke. She thinks the offer may be from the Sheriff and then apologizes.
Johnson calls on Allridge as he is packing. Allridge says he cannot be at his hearing tomorrow. What he could say was in the paper. Johnson says he needs better evidence and asks about the affidavits. Johnson says he came there to give them the action he has been calling for; but he is leaving like a scared rabbit. Johnson gives Allridge a subpoena, and Allridge says he may regret it. Johnson says he will have to answer. Allridge says he can win without him.
In a car at night Johnson tells Maxwell how he tried everything on Allridge. Maxwell says he would not sell out. Johnson says he is going to lose, but Maxwell says he can maul Burke while losing. Maxwell says people are being hurt. They stop and see Benny walk away. Johnson goes in his hotel while Maxwell follows Benny.
In the hotel Johnson says he is checking out tomorrow. He is handed a note that says, “They got Cleo in the jail!” Johnson goes out and takes a cab.
Benny is walking on the street, followed by Maxwell. Benny hides in a dark alley, and Maxwell asks him to come out and tell him what he knows.
Johnson goes in the jail and tells the deputy he wants to visit the woman. The deputy says they have no women prisoners. Johnson runs in and shows his prosecutor i.d. to another guard who unlocks the cell block. Johnson is taken to a cell and talks to Cleo through bars. She says she is not all right. He asks the guard to open the door. The guard asks if he has something from Burke. Johnson says yes and slugs him. They fight as the prisoners watch and cheer. Johnson knocks him out, unlocks the cell, and takes Cleo out. Outside the cell block they are stopped as Burke, Tarsson, and the deputy arrive. Burke makes the prisoners shut up and discusses with Tarsson what to do with Johnson and Cleo. Burke tells Johnson to tell the attorney general he does not need help running his county. Johnson says he is taking her with him. Burke pulls a gun, and Captain Maxwell arrives with a gun and says he has authority to shoot him. They drop their guns, and Johnson and Cleo leave with Maxwell.
At the train station Johnson accompanies Cleo who is leaving. They say goodbye and kiss before she boards the train.
In the courtroom Maxwell sits next to Johnson who says he will try to make Allridge talk. Burke, the deputy, and Tarsson come in and sit on the other side. Tarsson says Johnson can still move for a dismissal. Judge Neeler (Hugh Sanders) comes in and announces the case of the People vs. Burke et al. He says it is a hearing to determine if there is probable cause to hold the defendants for trial. He asks to hear from the prosecution. Randy Stauton as prosecutor for the county asks the judge to hear the special prosecutor Johnson. He seeks to indict Burke, Tarsson, Elk M. Ludens, and deputy Grayton. Johnson adds another count on conspiracy to intimidate the editor Allridge, whom he calls as his first witness.
Allridge is asked only if he is a newspaper editor and then is dismissed subject to recall. Johnson asks him to stay in the courtroom. Tarsson objects to him listening, but the judge over-rules. A former prisoner is called but refuses to answer any questions. The second witness does not talk either. A third refuses to regain his self-respect. The judge says they are getting nowhere, but Johnson says they are building up a record of intimidated witnesses. Johnson calls Wilfred Jackson. He says he worked in the newspaper office with Allridge selling food. He is now in a prison labor gang working in Tarsson’s home. Johnson asks if he was convicted, and Jackson says he has not had his trial yet. Jackson says that Burke, Tarsson, and Ned threatened him if he talked, like Tom Kenny who was killed. Tarsson’s objection is sustained. Johnson asks Jackson about the article in Allridge’s newspaper. Johnson commends Jackson’s courage, and Tarsson asks no questions.
Johnson recalls Allridge, and Tarsson objects there is no evidence. Johnson calls Benny Amboy who was present when Allridge was beaten. A deputy whispers to Johnson who tells the judge that Amboy’s body was found this afternoon. He calls Allridge who refuses to answer whether Jackson spoke the truth. Johnson asks him if he feels he owes the people anything, and he says he does. Johnson asks what happened when he met with Burke and Tarsson. Allridge refuses to answer because it would incriminate and degrade him. As Allridge walks away, Johnson asks him why.
Burke stands up and says fines keep the taxes down, and he has been re-elected many times. Tarsson waives his rights. The judge says Johnson has only the testimony of Jackson. Johnson stands up and says these silenced people need the protection of the law and the help of the free press. He says something happened to still the voice of the people, taking away the freedom of the people. As he speaks, Peggy and Randy go out. Johnson says it is a civic cancer with intimidated witness and violence from ruthless men. He says the cancer must be cut out, or it will spread. He asks that they be bound over for trial. Maxwell says he mauled him.
The judge says he can judge only based on the law and the evidence. Peggy and Randy come back in. Randy speaks to the judge and asks if he can recall a witness, calling Allridge again.
Randy asks him to tell what happened in the inner room at Amboy’s that night. Randy asks Peggy to say where he was that night, and she says he was in Room 214 at Amboy’s. Tarsson objects, and the judge sustains him. Randy tells Allridge that Peggy gave him his answer. Allridge says all right and testifies that he did not accept money, but he did accept something else. Allridge says he was offered a bribe.
Battered Allridge is taken to the other room, and he sees his son-in-law Randy and asks why he is there. Tarsson shows him an indictment from the death of Kenny. Tarsson says witnesses swore that Kenny was killed by the kangaroo court, and his body was dumped by the road. Tarsson says the notes are in Randy’s handwriting. Allridge asks Randy if he knew about those when he quashed the indictment, and Randy bows his head. Tarsson shows him more evidence. Allridge asks why, and Randy says he was ambitious. They promised to send him to the state capital. Allridge says he would go to the penitentiary. Tarsson says it would be for 10-20 years, a long time away from his family.
In court Allridge says that every man has his price, and his was his daughter and granddaughter. So he left town like a thief. Tarsson says this story is a fabrication. Burke leaves the courtroom. The judge says that Stauton has nominated himself for a prison term. Johnson asks for an emergency search warrant for the documents in the Kenny case, and he demands an immediate ruling.
Burke has taken a file from a cabinet, and Maxwell grabs him.
Burke and Maxwell come back into the courtroom, and Johnson offers the files in evidence. Stauton identifies the documents. Johnson says the prosecution rests. Johnson asks Allridge to forgive him, but Allridge thanks him. The judge has the defendants stand and finds in favor of the prosecution. He orders them bound over for trial without bail in the Bridgewood County jail. Burke asks who will put him in the jail in his county, and the judge says the law will do that. He says the law is bigger than men and stronger than force and cannot be threatened. No one can defy it for long in this country because it is the united will of the people. A deputy takes the four defendants into the jail, and the judge adjourns the court.
The deputy tells Jackson that the judge has ordered his release.
Johnson tells Maxwell that that was rough on Stauton. Johnson asks Maxwell to help him on the trial. Maxwell asks what he gets out of working for the attorney general, and Johnson says satisfaction. As they walk out, they look at the engraving over the courtroom door which reads “Justice is truth in action.”
This drama shows how important a free press is in exposing corruption that can then be brought to justice by the legal system. The worst crimes that affect the most people occur when officers of a government abuse their authority and use their power to punish people in selfish and illegal ways. Because of their positions they may get away with it for a time, but the people who have suffered can use a free press to bring to light and to justice their wrongs that need to be corrected.