Based on Nelson Algren’s novel, a heroine addict returns from prison to his invalid wife and girlfriend and tries to get a job as a musician; but others want him to deal poker again.
Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) gets off a bus carrying two cases. He goes into a beer place, and he sees his friend Sparrow (Arnold Stang). He says he is clean now. He shows them his new drum. Louie (Darren McGavin) invites him, but Frankie says he kicked the habit. Frankie tells Sparrow he is going to get a job in a band.
Frankie goes into an apartment building and climbs stairs. He says hello to Vi (Doro Merande). He opens a door and sees his wife Zosch Machine (Eleanor Parker). They embrace, and she is very happy. She shows him the cake she got to welcome him. She asks how it was, and he says the doctor was good to him. He gives her a necklace he made. She blows a whistle and says she needs it when she is alone. He learns that Schwiefka did not always send her money. He says he should have because he took the rap. Zosch is in a wheelchair, and Frankie says she has to get well. Frankie says he is no longer a dealer; he is a drummer now. He shows her his letter from the doctor and goes to make a call.
Frankie walks downstairs to a phone and calls Harry Lane. Molly (Kim Novak) says hello to him and then leaves with a man. Frankie is helped by Sparrow and gets dressed. Zosch is worried and upset he is leaving. After they go, she gets up and walks to the window.
Frankie and Sparrow go to a bar, and Frankie takes a drink. Schwiefka (Robert Strauss) asks Frankie to deal for him, but he says no. Police pick up Frankie and Sparrow for the suit that Sparrow shoplifted. Detective Bednar (Emile Meyer) says to book them and keep the suit. They are put in a large cell with others. Schwiefka visits them and offers to get Frankie out with $37 if he will deal for him. Frankie says okay. A young man screams to get out. They take him out, and he asks for a fix.
Frankie is dealing in a poker game, and Louie asks Frankie what happened to his job. Frankie is shaking and goes outside and smokes a cigarette. Louie follows him and says he will be around.
Frankie goes to a strip club and talks to Molly, who works there. Frankie orders two drinks. She encourages his drumming, and he says he will take a stage name. A man asks Molly for a buck, and she gives it to him. She tells Frankie that she got lonely. Frankie says she could do better. He explains about the helpless woman upstairs and that he won’t be coming around anymore. She says she understands and wishes him luck.
An older man asks Frankie to audition, and he warns him not to go back in the habit. At home Frankie massages Zosch’s ankle, and she talks. Frankie answers the phone in the hall, but it is not for him. Dr. Dominiwski (Leonid Kinskey) arrives and works on Zosch with a vibrator. She shows him her scrapbook of the accident. Frankie leaves.
He goes in the beer place and sees Louie but sits with Sparrow. Louie leaves, and Frankie goes after him. In his apartment Frankie rolls up his sleeve. Louie prepares the drug and says it is five bucks. Frankie says it was two before and pays him. Louie says monkey never dies. Frankie takes the shot and says the monkey will die waiting for him.
At home Frankie asks Zosch where his sticks are, and she shows him and says she stood up and put them there. He asks how she did that, and she says someone else did it. Frankie asks her to pick a card, but she wants fun or a beer. She asks if he wishes she had died. They quarrel. He starts to play drums, and she tells him to take them down to his girlfriend and practice there. He says he has not been talking with her. He decides to go, takes some money, and walks out.
Frankie goes in the beer place, brushes off Sparrow, and tells Louie he wants to see him. Louie indicates he is busy. Molly asks Frankie about his job. Frankie says he has not called him. Frankie calls and finds out he has an audition on Monday. He says Zosch can’t stand the noise. He asks Molly if he can put the drums in her place, but she says Johnny would not understand. She does not want to hurt him. Frankie says he is a drunk. She says she does not want to start with him again. He wants to make some money to get Zosch well. Louie comes up to Frankie, who ignores him. Molly tells him he can come once in a while. He thanks her and leaves.
Molly walks home and finds Frankie drumming there. She pulls down the shade, takes off her dress behind a screen, and washes her face. She puts on a robe, and he hands her a glass of milk. He says he joined the musician’s union and hawked the drums. He says he quit the game. She asks if it is bad and says he should not have started again. He says Louie gave him his first shot for nothing. Then he found he needed it and realized he was hooked. Molly cries, and he asks her not to. He says he had his last fix. He hopes to get Sparrow a job with the orchestra and pay to get Zosch walking again. He lays Molly on the bed she was sitting on and covers her with a coat. He turns out the light and sits in a chair.
Zosch lets Schwiefka and Louie in. Louie tells Schwiefka he should have offered him more money. Now they lost big customers. On the street Frankie shows Molly his musician’s card. He talks about buying her things, and they look at a model kitchen with a couple of dummies. He invites her to eat out late, and she suggests they stay in. Frankie goes home and shows Zosch his card. She tells him to go talk to Schwiefka. She asks him how they will live without his dealing. He says he quit because he could get arrested and lose his new job. She acts frantically, and he walks out.
Frankie goes to the bar for a drink. Schwiefka tells him they need him for two big gamblers. Louie says Frankie is not interested. Louie says Frankie is the best dealer and asks for one night, offering him 250. Frankie says okay for one night. Louie asks him if he really has the music job. Frankie says if they like what they hear. Louie says he had to give up candy. He tells how one night he ate so much candy that he got sick. Now when he thinks of candy, he remembers that. Frankie goes with Louie to his place.
Later Frankie finds Molly in the strip club. He says he has the touch, and his hands are steady. Molly notices that he is on it again and asks why. Frankie pushes Johnny away from Molly. Her boss fires Molly, and she runs out. Frankie runs after her, but she does not open the door. She quickly packs, puts on a coat, goes out, and gets into a cab. Frankie asks where she is going. He goes back to Louie’s place.
Frankie reminds Schwiefka how much he gets. Men come in, and the two gamblers arrive and sit at the table. Frankie deals. Vi knocks on the door and tells Sparrow that she can’t get Zosch to sleep. Frankie plays against the two men, and in a big hand he wins on a bluff. Frankie says he is leaving because it is daylight. Frankie asks for his money, but Louie tells him later. Frankie walks home and finds Zosch asleep. He sits on the bed and then decides to leave. He goes quickly to Louie’s place. Louie says he has to deal, Frankie says he is shaking but finally agrees. Frankie deals, and the two men pour water on their heads. Frankie says he has to go, but Louie tells him a little longer and then he will take him to his place. Sparrow comes in with coffee. Louie asks Schwiefka where they can get some more money. Louie tells Frankie he has to win and to use his skill with the cards. The two gamblers have lots of money. Frankie deals, and they bet. They catch Frankie flipping the deck, and the big gambler slaps him. Schwiefka spits on Frankie, and the two men leave. Sparrow tries to console Frankie.
Frankie goes to Louie and rolls up his sleeve. Louie asks for money. Frankie promises to pay him, and Louie says no. Frankie knocks him out and searches the room. Sparrow comes in and tries to stop him.
Frankie goes to his audition and is told to sit in. Frankie plays the drum, but messes up too much and walks out. He goes home, and Louie sees him from his window. Frankie tells Zosch he needs some money. He does not find any and goes. He sees Louie coming and hides before leaving. Louie walks in and sees Zosch standing and walking. He laughs, and she looks shocked. He says he will tell everyone. She begs him not to tell and pushes him over the rail in the stairwell. Frankie comes back and finds his door locked. He sits on a stair.
Bednar questions Zosch about dead Louie. She says Frankie did not do it. He asks how she knew. She says Frankie wanted money. Bednar says he will come up for a fix. Frankie sees Molly come back and pushes his way in and asks her for money. He feels bad and asks her why not. She says she will not help him kill himself. He says he needs one fix, and then he will kick it for good. Johnny comes to the door, but she won’t let him in. Frankie looks for money. Johnny says he killed Louie and that cops are looking for him. She denies he is there and persuades Johnny to leave. Frankie tells her he did not do it. He asks what he should do. She says tell the police it was not him. She suggests he stop on his own. He says cold turkey is painful. He asks for one fix, and she says okay and offers him some money. She says Bednar knows what he needs and is waiting for him. She says to let them kill him. He says no, but a guy can’t do it by himself. She offers to help. He says it is too dangerous for her. She must remove knives and keep him from leaving the room and not give him any pills or anything. She locks the door.
Bednar questions Sparrow and says he may be an accessory. Sparrow says nothing, and Bednar lets him go.
Frankie is suffering and calls for his doctor. He shakes and rolls on the floor. He tries to open the door and breaks a chair. Molly knocks on Zosch’s door, goes in, and gives her some food. Zosch asks where he is. Molly says what she said made it look bad for Frankie. Zosch says he put her in that chair, and she screams for Molly to get out. Molly leaves.
Molly finds Frankie about to jump out the window, and she stops him. She goes in the closet. When he comes in, she goes out and locks it. She turns on loud music and then stops it. She asks Frankie to answer her and then opens the door. He falls on the floor and says he is cold. He asks her to make him warm, and she puts blankets over him. She lays on top of him. Johnny comes to the door, and he arranges to meet Molly. He leaves, and Frankie stands up and says he is all right. Outside Johnny sees Frankie and Molly in the window. Frankie asks for something sweet, and she gives him sugar. He kisses her and warns her about his rough beard. He asks for a razor, and she asks if she can trust him.
Police arrive, and Bednar comes in. He asks Molly where he is, and she says he is no longer a junkie. She says he is with Zosch. Frankie goes in and tells Zosch he did not do it. He says he is leaving and will send her money. He says he got in the same old routine. He says he has to leave, but she does not want him to go. She says it is Molly. He says goodbye, and she gets up to follow him. Bednar opens the door and sees her walking. Bednar tells her to get dressed. She puts on a coat, runs out on the balcony, blows her whistle, and jumps off. Frankie runs down to the street and tells her not to move. She says she loves him and dies. An ambulance arrives, and a doctor checks her vital signs. They put her body in the police ambulance. Molly walks with Frankie.
This serious drama explores the difficulty of breaking a heroine habit, especially when one is in the same situation again. The experience of watching the desperate addict gives the audience a sense of the pain he feels. The wife who pretends to be an invalid reinforces the theme of dependency and self-defeating helplessness and rejection of the outside world that addicts experience. The addict finds a friend who really helps him and realizes he has to get away from the other bad influences.