Don Mankiewicz adapted his own novel about a law professor who takes the murder case and defends a Latino boy who is being used by the Communist party to raise money.
At San Juno village beach on June 7, 1947 at 9:30 at night people hear someone crying. An officer finds a Latino youth standing over the body of a woman.
At the state university David Blake (Glenn Ford) is told his teaching contract is not being renewed because he has no trial experience. David wants the job and offers to practice law during the summer. He is rejected by a law firm. He sees the newspaper about the arrest, and he asks Barney Castle (Arthur Kennedy) to let him work as a lawyer. Barney hires him, and he meets Abbe Nyle (Dorothy McGuire). They go to see the boy accused of murder and meet his upset mother Consuela Chavez (Katy Jurado). Barney questions Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos) about how the girl died and what they were doing. He says they were making love, and Barney tells him not to say that. Abbe suggests she could have had rheumatic fever. Barney says she was under age and slaps Angel. Barney tells Consuela not to talk to anyone except him. Barney advises David not to call any witnesses because the state has to prove their case and has no witnesses.
In the car Barney tells David to take this case. Barney says he will raise the money for the case. David believes Angel is innocent, but Barney does not. At lunch David says he needs time to decide. District Attorney Jack Armstrong (John Hodiak) sits down with them, and David says he is taking the case. Jack offers him a light sentence if he pleads guilty to manslaughter. Barney says he would only plead guilty to trespassing. Jack says he will be charged with first-degree murder. Barney tells Abbe they must avoid a public funeral.
Barney and David talk to Gail Wiltse (Ann Lee), and her husband Sam Wiltse (Whit Bissell) comes in and tells them to get out. He is grieving for his daughter. Gail says there has to be a funeral. Barney asks that it be quick and quiet without publicity.
In the office David dictates to Abbe who is typing. She shows him the paper, and he reads a smooth version of what he wanted. She says he will win because he believes that “every wrong has a remedy,” which is written on his lighter.
At the cemetery a few people attend the burial. Then they see a group of men approaching. Barney tells David the men are led by the white supremacists Ralph Castillo (John Hoyt) and Cap Grant (Paul Guilfoyle), who complain this was not a Christian burial. The minister prays, and Castillo makes a speech that they should speak out. He says they are going to make sure that justice is done. He suggests that the Mexicans and the whites can live separately. Barney suggests a plan to counter their actions.
Men gather outside the jailhouse, and inside Sheriff Fats Sanders (Ray Middleton) calls the governor. Barney makes Consuela swear that she will do whatever he says. Sanders gets a pistol and says he will protect his jail. Men bring a tree trunk and use it as a battering ram against the barred door. Barney urges Sanders to talk to them. D. A. Jack comes and says they have to be stopped. Men bring nitro, and Sanders fires his gun and talks to them from the roof. Sanders tells them to go home, and he promises the killer will hang legally. He tells Castillo that a lynch town will have a bad reputation. He persuades them to go home, and they start leaving.
At the airport Barney tells David he has to know all about Angel and the girl. Barney and Consuela board the plane. Barney says David can use his beach house, and Abbe has the keys. In the evening there David is reading a law book. Abbe fixes a heating device and tells David she fixed it before when she and Barney worked there. David kisses her.
In jail Angel talks to David, who answers his questions. Angel asks if the Negro judge will hang him. Angel asks him to explain things because he wants to be a lawyer.
The trial begins with Judge Theodore Motley (Juano Hernandez) presiding. The clerk calls names for the jury, and David explains to Angel that he can challenge jurors. The D. A. excuses one juror. David questions Mr. Abbott and asks him to be put under oath. David asks him where he was on that night, and he admits he was there. The judge excuses him. David questions Mr. Benedict and asks him if he employs Mexican pickers, and he says he is not prejudiced. David reads a note and asks that the entire panel be dismissed because the state tampered with them. The judge calls them into his chambers and asks for David’s evidence. David says that detectives questioned all the jurors. Jack says he did not know anything about it. The judge says the defense stopped a mistrial; they will have to find a new panel. The judge asks David what is bothering him. David says he does not like this trial and does not want a Negro judge. The judge asks if he would bar him because of the color of his skin. David leaves.
That evening Abbe tells David that she knows much about him, but he never asked her anything about her. He asks if she would have told him, and she says probably not. David answers the phone, and Barney asks David to come see him on the weekend. Abbe sees David off at the airport.
Barney has prepared a large hall with a huge picture of Angel Chavez. Barney says the All People’s Party will be paid for how much money they turn in. Barney gives $50 to a woman who was discriminated against for political reasons; he tells her to donate it, and he will introduce her. Consuela says she is tired of the food at the dinners every night. Barney tells her to order a steak in her room and eat little at the dinner. Barney tells David that he is the main attraction. David says he does not like it. Barney says 18,000 people are coming. David says half the people in that party are Communists, and he does not want that money. Barney says they need the money. David tears up the speech and will say what he wants.
At the rally a Negro speaks first. Then children recite, and a woman dances. Consuela speaks that they gave her hope. She introduces David. He says that Angel Chavez should be free. Then Barney nods; the mic is shut off, and the band starts playing. A man introduces Barney. He tells his friends to trust each other. His agents begin collecting money, and he asks everyone to hold up a dollar bill. He tells them to close their eyes, and no one will take them; but the agents grab the dollars. He admits that he lied to them and tells them not to trust anyone. He asks if anyone will donate $5,000 to save Angel Chavez. He is given a pledge of $10,000 from a labor union. He reads other pledges and introduces the lady from the Philadelphia 8 who gave $50. Barney says David has to catch a plane. As David leaves, he says they will save Angel Chavez.
Abbe meets David at the airport. He says he stepped into a trap. He says he was not able to tell the Communists what he thought of them. He says he loves her and wants to marry her. He asks her why she let him step into that mess.
In court David asks a juror if he knows Sheriff Sanders. The judge reminds him they have spent three weeks choosing the jury. David says that Sanders has made promises. The judge says he cannot dismiss him for cause because his friend is prejudiced. Afterward Finn (Elisha Cook) hands David a subpoena. David says it will be vacated because of the trial.
David calls the Committee on Disloyalty and Subversion and tells them why he cannot appear before them. Abbe asks what he will say, and he says he will tell the truth. She hands him his notes and says goodnight. David says she is running away. She says she was not a Communist, but she was a fellow traveler. She explains why it drew her, but she could not accept the party line. She started thinking for herself and asking questions. She admits she was wrong. She says she could not strike back at people who were like brothers and sisters. She says she cannot bear to see him destroyed. He says they will not destroy him. She says she believes in him, and they embrace.
In court Angel advises David to challenge the juror he questioned closely. A juror on the committee against segregation is accepted, and the jury is sworn in. Jack says that the state will show that the defendant committed murder. David says he doubts that the case can be proved because it did not happen that way. The D. A. calls a cardiologist, and David cross-examines him about the cause of her heart attack. He says she suffered from rheumatic fever. David asks if she had a recurrence, and he says she did. David suggests she could have been walking up stairs. The judge calls a recess for lunch.
While Angel eats, David says the witness has time to think of what to say. The doctor says her heart was probably subjected to a violent strain. David asks a witness to show how he pointed a light on the defendant, and he has a hard time. Angel gives wood carvings to David and Abbe.
In court Angel calls for help, and a witness says that is what he heard. David questions a witness about the alcohol he drank that night and shows his memory was faulty. Barney interrupts and asks for an adjournment so that he can consult with David. The judge agrees. The press asks Barney who his witness is, but he won’t say. Barney wants to call Angel, and David disagrees. David says he is the attorney of record. Barney says his mother can change his attorney. Abbe says Barney wants a dead martyr. David says he must be there.
In jail David advises Angel to tell the complete truth. When Armstrong questions him, he should take his time answering. In court David questions Angel and asks him what happened. He says she held his hand. He says he kissed her and put his arms around her. He says her dress ripped. He did not do anything against her will. Armstrong cross-examines him. Angel admits he was afraid. David objects to an argumentative question and is sustained. Angel says she put his hand on her knee. He does not know how her dress was ripped. Angel says he did not understand the physiology class.
The jury finds the defendant guilty of murder. The judge adjourns the court. Consuela says they have killed her son, and she embraces him.
Barney thanks David in his office and tells him an appeal is useless because that judge has never been overturned. David and Abbe go to Consuela to appeal, but she will not let them in her house. She says he will not die in vain. David tells Abbe that he will tell the committee the truth. She says Battle will not let him tell the truth. She says $320,000 was raised for the case. He says he did not know that, and she asks why he did not ask about it. She asks why he flew to New York for a fund-raising rally. She asks where the $150,000 he received is. He realizes he is going to be discredited. She says there must be some remedy for this wrong. He says he will find something in the law to protect them.
In court the judge is about to sentence Angel Chavez, and David asks to be heard. Barney says he is no longer counsel. The D. A. does not object, but Barney does. The judge lets him speak, and he warns Barney about contempt of court. David comes forward and says the accused must be properly represented. He says he was foolish, and Barney wants his client convicted. David speaks of the prejudice against his client. He says he should have asked for a change of venue. David believes he would have been acquitted if he had not taken the stand, and that decision was made by Bernard Castle and the Communist Party so that he would die, and they could raise more money. He asks that the law protect him. Barney criticizes the judge harshly and calls him an Uncle Tom. David asks for an indeterminant sentence for a minor. He asks for a fairer sentence than the death penalty. He asks for justice. The D.A. also asks for an indeterminant sentence. The judge sentences him to a state industrial school until the principal releases him. People cheer. The judge asks Barney to rise and says he tried to provoke him to make him a martyr. He sentences him to thirty days in jail for contempt of court. Finn gives David a subpoena, but Finn says Mr. Battle will not want to take him on. David says he hopes he does.
This courtroom drama takes on the issues of racial prejudice and political exploitation and persecution, reflecting the current zeal for and fear of those who question people for having been Communists. In this story a lawyer cynically exploits people to raise money and gain attention for his political cause, fulfilling the stereotype that many have of Communists. Also it is hard to believe that a jury would convict a youth of murder on so little evidence.