Directed by Martin Ritt, a young man, alienated from his parents, gets a job as a stevedore but clashes with a boss while becoming friends with an African-American boss.
At night Axel Nordmann (John Cassavetes) runs and barely catches a ferry to New York City. At the dock a man points toward a building that he enters. He goes into an office and says he is looking for Charlie Malik and work. The man says he works the day shift; he will have to come back in the morning. Axel finds a pay telephone and calls Gary, Indiana to talk with Mrs. Nordmann (Ruth White). George Nordmann (Robert Simon) answers and tells his wife he wants to know who is calling. She asks him to let her talk to him while Alex puts in $1.80. His father threatens to break his neck, and his mother talks to Axel. He says he misses her, but she does not hear him. She asks where the call is coming from, and the operator says New York. Axel says he wants to talk to her; but his father comes on and says he is killing his mother. Axel hangs up, and George asks the operator where the call came from. His wife asks what they did, and George says it is not their fault.
Axel looks for a place to lie down and sits against barrels.
In the morning Tommy Tyler (Sidney Poitier) tells Axel to wake up and says it is late for the shift. Axel says he is looking for a job. Tommy tells him his name and says he will help him. Axel says he knows Charlie Malik, and Tommy says in that case he won’t need his own help.
Axel goes into the office and asks to see Malik. Davis gives him an application. Charles Malik (Jack Warden) comes in, and Axel says they met through Ed Faber. Malik asks his name and says he is all right. He says to start him as a stevedore in his gang. He tells Axel to come to him and no one else. The man tells Axel he has to fill out the application in front of him and will have 60 days on probation before he has to join the union.
An older man takes Axel to the foreman Wallace and tells him to put him on with Malik’s gang. Axel thanks Malik for getting him the job, and Malik says he will be paid $1.71 an hour and will thank him by paying him 25 cents an hour. Tommy asks Malik how he gets everyone to work in his gang. Tommy says he could use him. Malik says a hot-shot like him does not need help. Malik says he can remember when guys like him could not work there, and Tommy asks what kind of a guy he is. Malik calls him a wise guy. Malik tells Axel to move some pieces, and Axel wants more information and says he is not a slave.
During lunch break Tommy asks Axel to come down to the waterfront, but Axel stays there. While eating Malik asks a man to get new cards. Axel joins Tommy on the edge of a dock, and Tommy says freedom is there. Tommy says they call him “T. T.,” and Axel gives his name. Tommy says he asks a lot of questions. He says he is a millionaire doing the work for fun. He gets Axel to laugh. Tommy says Charlie is the lowest form of animal life, and a man must make a choice. He advises him not to go with the lower forms. Axel asks what if he does not want to go with anybody. Axel thanks him, and Tommy asks for what.
Malik tells Axel he piled boxes too high, and he tells him to knock off at four. Tommy asks Malik to go easy on the kid. Malik tells Axel that they do not do anything for that guy, and Axel asks what difference it makes. Malik says because he said so. Axel starts to reply, and Malik pushes him twice in the chest, asking if he heard what he said. He tells Axel to be there at 8 sharp in the morning. Tommy says Malik is hard to get along with, but Axel has walked away. Tommy offers Axel a lift, but he says he does not know where he is going. Tommy suggests that he try around where he lives, but Axel asks what he wants. Tommy says he does not want anything. Axel changes his mind and gets in the car.
Tommy stops the car at a playground, gets out, and picks up his son and introduces him to Axel. Tommy points out where he lives and advises him to try around there.
Axel walks on a street and sees a “room for rent” sign. He goes in and lies down on a bed.
In the morning Tommy greets Axel who says his back aches. Tommy gives him a hook, and Axel offers to pay for it. Tommy says the foreman owes him favors and says he can work in his gang if he wants. Malik tells Axel to get to work. Tommy says he would like Axel to work in his gang, and Wallace approved. Malik says he is working for him, and Tommy suggests they let Axel choose; but Malik repeats he is working for him and takes his arm. Axel goes with Malik who reminds him he told him to stay away from Tommy who says Malik thinks no one should work for him. Malik hands Axel a paper and walks away. Tommy tells Axel he still has a choice. Axel gives the paper back to Malik and says he is working for Tommy.
Tommy stops his car and toots the horn for Axel, who asks him to get his lunch from Linda. Tommy tells Axel he is to drive, and he cooperates.
On the dock Axel asks Tommy if he wants his lunch and tosses his pale to others. They play keep-away until Tommy gets it back. They climb on a box car and eat sandwiches sitting on the roof. Tommy says he asked his lady for a night out.
Malik tells a worker he cannot read a paper, and Axel offers to help him. Malik calls him and Tommy the two wise guys. He says Axel is peculiar. Malik tells Tommy to ask him why he kicks back a quarter an hour. Tommy says they have work to do, and Malik walks away. Axel says he is from Indiana. Tommy says he likes the name North better because it is more American. Axel says he wanted him to know his name is Nordmann.
In a restaurant while drinking Axel tells Tommy that the only person he loved was his brother Andy. He says they had a special relationship. He did not mind that his parents favored Andy over him. He had a great sense of humor. Axel says he died; he killed him, but it was an accident. Andy wanted him to drive his car and told him to go faster. He drove 98, and a tire blew. His father said he killed him and hit him. Axel says he could never talk to his old man.
Tommy stops the car at the playground and tells Axel he wants him to meet his wife Lucy. Tommy gets out and asks Axel to hang around for a while. They toss a basketball back and forth, and Axel meets Ellen Wilson (Kathleen Maguire).
Inside Axel plays bongo drums, and Tommy taps on a table. Tommy asks Lucy Tyler (Ruby Dee) to dance and hugs her. They dance, and Axel implies he can dance better. Tommy answers the door, and Axel helps Lucy move the dinner table. She says Tommy does not have many friends. Ellen comes in and says hello to Axel. Ellen helps Lucy in the kitchen, and Axel asks Tommy why he did not tell him she was coming for dinner.
In the kitchen Ruby asks Ellen to give Axel a chance, and she agrees as a special favor to her. Ellen carries a pot in, and Axel stands up. She says dinner is served, and Tommy laughs.
Later at the table Tommy and Axel are smoking cigars, and Tommy complains about a long discussion between Lucy and Ellen. Axel says he was interested. Lucy says Tommy suffers from guilt for having cut off her career. Lucy says the women will do the dishes but under protest, and they go in the kitchen. Tommy says they will retire for brandy, but it is really blueberry wine. Alex says he likes the perfecto cigar, and they laugh. Tommy says Axel is seven and a half feet tall now.
Racially mixed people are dancing. Tommy is dancing with Lucy and urges Axel to dance. He and Ellen are drinking at a table. She says she drank in Puerto Rico. Axel apologizes for not being able to dance like that. She asks him to try and says she will show him. They get up, and she tries to help him learn the dance. Tommy and Lucy show them how. A man in an army uniform thinks he recognizes Axel, who avoids him and rushes out. The man tells Tommy that he knows him.
Axel has driven, and Ellen gets out. Tommy tells Axel to walk her to the door and ask her for another date. Axel at the door apologizes for walking out like that. She asks if she will see him again, and he says he supposes so. She says goodnight and goes in. Axel gets in the back seat. Axel tells Tommy he can handle his own affairs.
Tommy and Axel arrive at work, and Malik tells Axel that Davis wants to see him about his questionnaire. Axel tells him to get off his back. Malik grabs a hook and challenges him to make him. Tommy throws his lunchbox down, and Malik turns around and stops. He looks around at the men watching and walks off. Axel and Tommy walk away together.
While Tommy and his son are watching, Axel on the phone asks Ellen to go bowling. She says yes, and Tommy tells Axel to pick her up at eight. They make the date and say goodbye. Tommy says that was not too difficult, and Axel agrees.
Ellen hears the car horn and comes out. She sits in the back with Axel, and Tommy says that he and Lucy are going to ruin them at ten cents a game.
Later at the door Axel tells Tommy that they want the money for winning. Tommy urges them to be quieter. Lucy unlocks the door, and they go in. Tommy introduces Axel to Lucy’s ma (Estelle Hemsley) who complains that she almost missed Sid Caesar on television. Ma goes out, and they laugh. Axel helps Ellen take off her coat. They review how well they did bowling, and he starts to instruct her, taking her arm to show her. They agree they had fun. He suggests they do it again, and she says Friday.
In the morning Tommy tells Axel he was up until 3 and is tired. Malik calls Nordmann, who asks how he learned his name. Malik says he is taking 50 cents an hour now, and he has to work on his gang. Axel says no, and Tommy asks what he wanted. Axel says it is all over, or he has to work for Malik. Tommy asks what it is, and Axel says it is not his business. Tommy tells him not to be scared of Charlie. Axel tries to get away, and Tommy says he has to fight him first. He says to make believe he is his father. Axel turns away, and Tommy says he has to have faith. Axel says he is in trouble and could go to jail for twenty years. Axel leaves.
Axel walks the streets and rings the bell at Tommy’s door. Lucy answers, and Axel asks Tommy to go for a walk.
On the street Axel picks up a baseball and tells Tommy that he enlisted in the army a year ago. He felt if he could become a sergeant, he could go home. Tommy disagrees, and Axel says his father was a cop. He has to prove himself, but Tommy says he is wrong. Axel says he is looking for something.
At a table in a bar Axel tells Tommy that in the army his sergeant was always pushing him, like Charlie. He says he could not take it any longer. He busted out, and Tommy realizes he deserted. Axel says the army is after him. Tommy admits he is in trouble, but he has mixed some things up. He says he is his friend, and it is important to him what happens to him.
Axel visits Ellen who invites him in. He declines to take off his coat and tells her his real name and that six months ago he deserted from the army. He starts to go, and she asks if she can take his coat. He turns around, and she hugs him.
At work Axel tells Malik that he does not care any more. Malik tells him to get his work done, and Axel asks what is next. Malik tells him to keep smiling. Axel quarrels with another worker over a dolly truck. Malik steps between them, and Axel shouts for him to come on. Malik picks up a hook and is ready to fight. A black worker and Tommy hold back Axel, and Tommy tells Charlie this is crazy. Tommy tells Axel to simmer down and not hurt Charlie who says Tommy is the blackest ape he ever saw. Tommy says that Malik wants him. Tommy says he does not want to fight Charlie, and a worker tosses a hook to Tommy. They fight, and Tommy picks up a ladder and uses boxes. He falls down; but then Malik loses his hook, and Tommy steps on it. Tommy says this does not make sense. Charlie gets the hook back. Tommy lunges at Charlie, but his hook gets caught in a fence. Charlie wounds him, and he screams. Axel runs and helps Tommy as he falls on the floor. Axel says it was his fight, and Tommy says no. Tommy goes unconscious, and Axel hugs him.
In the office two men in suits question the men. An old men tells Axel it was a fair fight. A man tells the detective he did not see anything. Another man says he knows nothing. The detective asks Malik, and he says he must have tripped and fell. The detective tells them all to get out. He says by making him an enemy they can only fall down and die like that guy. He says he will find out other ways, and he leaves. Malik tells Axel it was a fair fight.
In his room Axel thinks, takes off his coat, and goes into the hall to make a phone call. He calls Gary, Indiana, and his mother answers. She asks who is there, and Axel speaks to her. She says she is all right. She asks why he called before without saying anything. He says he wants to come home. George in his police uniform comes in, and Mrs. Nordmann says he wants to come home. George takes the phone and tells Axel that they want him to come home no matter what kind of trouble he is in. He tells him to talk to him and says they miss him. He pleads with his son and asks him to say something. Axel asks if he really wants him. George asks if he ever lied to him, and Axel admits he never did. Axel says he is a deserter from the army. George says they will work it out, and Axel says okay; he will come home. His parents are happy.
In his room Axel puts a hook in his bag and packs.
Axel rings the bell at the Tylers, and Lucy’s mother answers. He asks if Lucy is there. Lucy comes to the door and embraces him. She says a policeman came, but he did not know anything. Axel says it happened. Ellen comes in and says hello. She asks Axel if he is going anywhere. He says he is. He tells Lucy that he was his friend. He tries to give her $55, but she says they have insurance and welfare and will be all right. He asks what she will do. She says she used to joke about her ruined career, but it was not a joke. Now she has a chance to prove it. He wants her to have the money. She says she wants to know what happened. He says it was a fight, and she asks with whom. She asks if he was killed, murdered. She asks what the man did to him. She asks why they did not arrest him. He says it is because they do not know who it is. She asks if he knows, and he says he knows. She asks if he is running away without telling the police. She says he let them kill Tommy. She says he is like the others and tells him to get out. She crumples the money and drops it, telling him to take his “white-man’s money” and get out. He goes out, and she closes the door while crying. Her mother embraces her. Ellen rushes out.
On the street Ellen catches up with Axel and screams that he tell her so that she can understand. She asks him to help Tommy, and he says he couldn’t help him. She sobs, and he embraces her. They hug each other.
Axel goes into the office and asks Davis to call the detective for him. Davis says okay and picks up the phone.
Axel goes to Malik and tells him he is taking him to the cops. Malik asks if he knows what he is doing. Axel says he does, and they start to fight. Axel has a hook, and Malik slugs him. Axel throws a box and a barrel at Malik who hits him and knocks him down. Axel picks up a pipe, but Malik slugs him until he falls and stays on the ground. Axel pulls himself up and calls to Charlie. He manages to get his arms around Malik’s neck and pulls him to the ground, strangling him. Malik becomes unconscious, and Axel gets out from under him and stands up, staggering. He kneels down and pulls Malik by his collar, dragging his body as the workers watch.
This drama depicts a racist bully who causes conflicts for a Negro worker and his friend who is new on the job. The two men form a friendship as the good-humored Tommy helps Axel develop a social life.