Adapted from a play by Clifford Odets, a movie star feels trapped by a studio executive, who can blackmail him, while he tries to keep his marriage going.
Movie star Charles Castle (Jack Palance) boxes with Nick (Nick Cravat) for exercise and gets a visit from gossip columnist Patty Benedict (Ilka Chase), who asks about his separation from his wife Marion. She criticizes Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton), who does studio publicity, for his hit-and-run crime. Charles refuses to discuss his marriage. Marion (Ida Lupino) comes downstairs, and Patty questions her. Marion tells her to mind her own business. Patty leaves, and Buddy is worried. Charles and Marion talk, and she admits she is lonely at the beach. She says he wants to live like a bachelor and be married. Hank wants to marry her, and Charles gets upset. He calls in a servant to clean up. She asks for a check to pay bills. Marion advises Charles not to sign the seven-year contract because she does not like Stanley Hoff’s pictures. He admits he is Hoff’s prisoner. She says Charles can have a second chance. He says they do love each other. She plans to move back in with their son Billy, and they kiss.
Nick is giving Charles a massage, and his agent Nat Danziger (Everett Sloane) arrives. Charles says he does not want to sign the contract. Nat thought he agreed. Nat says Stanley and Smiley are dropping by soon. Nat says Charles is too idealistic; Stanley won’t let him go and could send him to jail. Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) and Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey) arrive and invite Charles to the races, but he declines. Stanley favors reconciliation with Marion, and he asks about the contract. Charles says he does not want to sign. Stanley asks what Marion wants. Charles says he wants to leave Hollywood. Stanley says he was there during the scandal. He refers to his own wife’s attempted suicide and how she was going to destroy his career. He says a woman must stay out of her husband’s work.
Charles says Stanley is trying to force him to sign. Charles asks Stanley to let him go. Stanley says he needs him, and Charles signs the contract. Nat says Charles has seven years of financial security. Charles gets a call from Marion. When he says he lost, she hangs up.
Connie Bliss (Jean Hagen) finds Charles sleeping in a chair, and she asks him if Buddy is there. They drink tequila, and he admits he is drunk. He tries to kiss her and tells her to go home. She knows that her husband Buddy went to prison for him. Buddy calls, and Charles denies that Connie is there. Charles hangs up and tells Connie to get out of there. He asks what she believes in. He tells her to go home and walks upstairs. She takes the bottle and goes upstairs too.
Charles visits Marion at the beach, and he invites her for dinner with the Blisses. At his house they watch Charles in a boxing movie. Buddy and Connie leave. Charles asks Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy) if he can see him before he leaves Hollywood. Charles complains that Hank proposed to Marion. Charles says Marion won’t leave him. Hanks goes out to wait in the car. Charles apologizes to Marion. She says she is seeing a lawyer in the morning, and she leaves. In the car Hank asks Marion to make a choice.
Smiley calls on Charles and pours himself a drink. Smiley is worried that Dixie has a loose mouth. Charles does not want Marion to know he had a woman in the car with him during the accident. Charles calls Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters) at the party next door. She tries to talk while dancing and agrees to go swimming with Charles. Smiley says they tried to offer Dixie a contract and says he could get rid of her. Smiley slips out before Dixie comes in. They continue drinking, and she asks him why he no longer likes her. She likes him because he is kind to her. She says she is saving money for Mr. Right. She says the studio could drown her. He asks her not to talk about the accident. She tells him not to worry. She complains about how the studio uses her to entertain visitors. Marion comes in, and Charles introduces her to Dixie, who leaves. Charles protests his innocence. Marion feels like a fool coming back to him. He won’t let her call a cab and wants to talk about her for a change. He says she is about to destroy their lives. She says she wants to beat him, but he says he loves her and promises her devotion. He asks her to love him. She walks upstairs and tells him to grow up.
At the studio Hank says goodbye to Charles. Hank is going to write a book. Charles asks why Marion won’t be happy there. Hank says it is because Charles sold out his ideals. Hank says there are realists, Philistines like Hoff, and idealists like Charles. They say goodbye.
Charles goes home and finds Smiley there. Smiley says Stanley blew up at Dixie and beat her up. Smiley says that Dixie is going to get back by spilling the story of Charles to Patty. Smiley tells Charles to get Dixie out of the bar, take her home, and give her a doctored gin. Smiley reminds Charles that he is married to his scheme. Charles wants to tell Stanley. Marion comes downstairs. Charles wants Smiley to tell Marion. Smiley says Charles is accusing him of plotting to murder the woman who was in the car with him during the accident. Charles calls Stanley.
Stanley tries to reassure Charles before Marion, Nat and Smiley. Stanley gets angry that Charles is accusing Smiley. Charles says they are talking about murder. Stanley gets angry and says he built up Charles, who says he will not talk to Stanley directly anymore. Smiley asks Marion to divorce Charles so that he can marry Dixie. Stanley says he has recordings of Marion and Hank in his car. Charles asks for them, and Stanley sends Smiley. Nat says his career is finished and cries. Smiley puts on a record, and Charles breaks the other one. Charles tells Smiley to leave and Stanley to stay. Stanley says he will break Charles by using the law. He says Charles will lose everything, and he leaves. Smiley says Charles is through, and he leaves. Nat says Stanley will protect his investment. Nat offers to give Dixie $10,000. Charles says he will talk to Dixie, and Nat leaves. Charles asks Nick to run a bath for him. Charles puts his arm around Marion and suggests they have Hank over for his advice. She calls him. Charles asks her to play music, and the record of her telling Hank she will never leave her husband is heard. Charles stops it and embraces her.
Buddy walks in and is upset at Charles because he was his friend. Charles asks Buddy to hit him. Buddy says she laughed in his face, and he spits at Charles and leaves. Charles says he yearns for people to bring out the best in him. Charles and Marion say they love each other, and he goes upstairs. Marion gets a call from Billy, and she advises him how to respond to a bully. Smiley comes in and calls Stanley. He says that Dixie left the bar and was killed crossing a street by a bus. Marion criticizes Smiley for attacking Charles. They see water leaking from the ceiling. Smiley goes upstairs, followed by Marion. Hank comes in, and Smiley comes downstairs. He calls Eddie and tells him to get a doctor and Stanley to come there. Smiley dictates a press release that Charlie died of a heart attack. Marion screams. Smiley says to tell Stanley that he slashed himself in three places. Smiley tells Nick to clean it up, but Nick is in shock. Marion comes downstairs with her dress soaked in blood. Hank tells Smiley he will tell the reporters that he killed himself. Hank says Charles could not go on hurting those he loved. Marion is bewildered and cries out to Charles for help.
This melodramatic tragedy exposes the studio system that kept actors under contract so that they could control the movies they make. No studio would produce this movie, and it was produced for $143,000 and shot in fifteen days. The actor realizes that his wife and her friend are right that he has sold out his ideals.