Based on news articles and letters of Barbara Graham and directed by Robert Wise, a loose woman with a criminal record is charged with murder and is convicted and executed because she did not have an alibi and tried to invent a false one.
At a bar a band plays jazz. A man persuades Peg (Virginia Vincent) to leave with him.
In a dark apartment Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) gets out of bed in a slip and gets dressed. A man is smoking and takes a photo out of her hands and kisses her. A man in a suit comes in and shows his police badge. He asks for the girl and tells her to come out of the bathroom. He accuses the man of violating the Mann Act, transporting a girl across state borders for immoral purchases. She says she paid for the room, and he asks if she knows what she will be charged with. She says it is not a federal rap. The man thanks her, and the policeman takes her away.
A photo shows Barbara and Peg behind bars. Barbara and Peg are dancing to jazz. On a balcony a sailor talks to Barbara and kisses her. Peg tells her that Mac and Stewie are there. She asks if they came from Frisco and goes out.
Barbara talks to them in a bed-room and agrees to be their alibi so they won’t be charged with a felony. Peg refuses to go along and leaves. Barbara takes them back to the party. Barbara dances for the crowd to bongo drums.
A newspaper reports that Barbara was sentenced to a year for perjury.
A matron tells Barbara that she is getting out and is on parole for five years. She has about nine convictions, not counting her juvenile offenses. The matron urges her to get a job or get married. She says she was, but it did not work out.
In a bar Barbara talks to Mr. Thomas who says he goes to Stanford. He agrees to cash her check. The bartender spills something and warns her that the guy is a vice cop. She makes an excuse and says she will be back.
In a home a man interviews Barbara and says he may give her a chance.
Barbara with a man gets into a car from Texas.
Barbara is playing poker with three men, and she wins money.
Barbara drives a car for two men who get in while a burglar alarm is sounding.
Emmett Perkins (Philip Coolidge) gives Barbara the $642 she earned, and she says she is getting married to the bartender. He says this will be her fourth marriage. Barbara tells Perk that she does not want to work there anymore. He wishes her luck, and she leaves.
A baby is crying, and Barbara argues with her husband Henry L. Graham (Wesley Lau). He asks her for money to bet on a horse. He insults her, and she slaps him. He slaps her back, and she tells the baby her daddy did not mean it. She says she is sick of supporting him and his habit. She gives him money and says that is the last he will ever get from her. He picks up the money and goes out.
Newspapers report that a woman was murdered. Barbara answers the door, and the landlord Bixel tells her that her check is no good. She has him come in and says she got her accounts mixed up. He asks her for cash, and she asks him to give her until tomorrow. He says after that he will go to the police.
Perkins answers the phone and tells Barbara she can come over. He tells Jack Santo (Lou Krugman) they should play it his way.
Barbara asks if her boy and her can stay there for a while. Perkins says he and Santo are taking a powder. She says she has busted checks around and a busted parole. She asks Perkins to take her with them, and Santo says she can go with him to Acapulco. She says she would rather take a rap than go with him. Perkins says she is coming with them, and Santo says he will send them postcards.
Barbara is worried and goes out at night with a toy tiger. She gets on a bus, and a detective calls the police and tells them where she is. A woman on the bus asks if the street is Burgess, and the police in their office hear the information and alert their men.
The reporter Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) rides in a car with the police inspector.
Barbara gets up to get off, and the lady reports that to the police. The bus stops, and Barbara gets off. She is followed by a man and goes into a factory.
In a backroom Perkins and Santo hear on the radio new leads on the murder case. Barbara comes in and says she is not their maid. The factory stops working, and their lights go out. They see a light coming in the window, and they hear a megaphone saying that the Los Angeles Police Department is there to arrest them. They are instructed to come out one at a time with their hands up. They call Emmet Perkins first, and he leaves the room. Santa grabs Barbara and accuses her of asking them there. He knocks her down and beats her. The police call John R. Santo. Then they call Barbara Graham. She wipes her face and combs her hair. They say she has sixty seconds, and they will come in and get her.
Outside the other two men are in a police car. She is given her last warning to come out, and she walks out of the factory holding the toy tiger. She refuses to put her hands up at first but then does so. Ed Montgomery asks her for a statement as people gather around.
Ed says she is the tiger woman.
In a police locker-room Barbara is being interrogated. She asks what the charge is, and they accuse of her bad checks and say there is also the murder case. She is asked if she uses narcotics, and she says no. She stands up and clashes with a man, spilling water on his shirt. She is asked to turn state’s evidence and is promised she will be released if she gives full information on the murder case. She refuses. A man says the others are spilling their guts. She calls the police officers jerks, and the man in charge says he is tired of trying with her.
Ed calls his editor and says that Graham will sell papers. A woman asks if that is how he got his Pulitzer prize. He says she is immoral and guilty as hell.
Barbara is booked into jail and sees them cut open the tiger with a razor blade. In the shower a matron examines her for wounds and scars. She talks back, and the woman gives her a cold shower.
Barbara is put in a cell with another woman. She is called out and is given a subpoena to appear before the grand jury for the Monahan murder. She says they are crazy and shouts she does not know anything about it.
This is reported on television by George Putnam. She has been indicted for murder with Perkins and Santo.
Barbara gets a visit from Peg who says she is married. Barbara asks her if her husband knows about them. Peg says she told her husband everything. Barbara says she is in a real jam, and many people have something to gain by convicting her. Barbara says Peg is a different person now. Peg asks what she can do. Barbara asks her to visit her son Bobby. Peg asks if she has a lawyer, and Barbara says she will use the public defender.
Barbara tells the court-appointed attorney Richard G. Tibrow (Gage Clarke) that she does not want him and would rather have the public defender. He says they are giving him $500 to investigate her case, and she says that is not nearly enough. She asks why she can’t have the public defender. He says the district attorney gave him to Bruce King who is a defendant who claims that she did the killing. Tibrow asks her for complete honesty, and she agrees. He explains that she needs an alibi to show that she was not there. She says she can’t do that and asks her chances. He says without a corroborated alibi she has no chance.
In jail Barbara reads a letter from Tibrow who asks her again to remember someone who could corroborate where she was at the time. Rita asks if she really was not there. Barbara says she was with her husband who skipped and her one-year-old son. Rita says she has a friend named Ben who needs money. Barbara says she is in for manslaughter and asks why she would do this for her. She says she can trust Ben. Barbara decides to gamble and suggests the password from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Barbara gets a visit from Ben and tells him she was not even there. They go over her alibi. He says he picked her up in a cab, and they went to a motel and registered and as Mr. and Mrs. J. Clark and stayed there all night. He kept quiet because he is married. He asks her where she really was in case anyone saw her. She says no one saw her; that is why she needs him. He says he won’t take the chance and starts to leave. She asks him what he wants. He asks if she was there. She offers to double his money. She agrees to have it his way and says she was with Perkins and Santo.
In the courtroom District Attorney Milton (Bartlett Robinson) says he will prove the case.
George Putnam on television asks for the extreme penalty.
Milton questions Bruce King (James Philbrook) who testifies that Barbara was striking Mrs. Monahan in the face with a gun. He says he stopped her, and they tied up Mrs. Monahan. Barbara tells Tibrow not to let him get away with that. Tibrow asks King what the D. A. offered him for his testimony, and he admits he will be released. Tibrow ascertains that King was given a gun before he got to the Monahan house. He asks why he took the gun, and he says he does not know.
A newspaper puts a photo of the Barbara’s hands on the front page as the hands of a murderer.
In the courtroom Peg tells Barbara that she saw Bobby. Ed asks Barbara who Peg is, and she says she is an autograph hound. She gives him the scoop that she shuns the press. The trial resumes, and the prosecution calls Ben Miranda. Barbara tells her lawyer that he is her witness for her alibi. He testifies that he is a police officer assigned to work on the Monahan murder case. He went to meet Mrs. Graham. She says they both crossed her and calls the woman a tramp. Tibrow asks to approach the bench and tells the judge that his client deceived him, and he asks permission to withdraw; but the judge refuses to relieve him. Ben testifies what the password was.
George Putnam plays the tape of their conversation on television made from a hidden microphone. He calls this a desperate attempt to create a false alibi. She is shown leaving the trial, and she tells Putnam that she is completely innocent. She swears she is innocent. Putnam reports that Rita was released from prison on probation.
Barbara is being cross-examined by Milton who says she made no effort to contact her husband. She says she wrote her husband a letter and never got an answer. He asks if she mentioned the important night of March 9. He shows the letter and puts it in evidence. Her husband and a police officer come into the courtroom. Barbara admits she wrote the letter and that she did not write about that night. She says she wanted Henry to come and see her. Milton asks her why she asked to see Ben. She felt she had no other choice. She thought Ben was her last chance, and he kept insisting that she say she was with Santo and Perkins. She says she was desperate. Milton says she may have been desperate because she knew she was already on probation. He asks what crime she was convicted of. She answers perjury, and people laugh.
A newspaper reports that her husband Henry was no help on the stand. All three defendants are convicted.
Barbara in jail is called to the attorney’s room to see her son. There she finds several reporters, and she picks up her crying baby. She asks them to give them a break. A woman asks how she feels knowing she faces the gas chamber. Barbara asks how she thinks it feels and runs out.
The judge denies a motion for a new trial by Al Matthews (Joe De Santis). The judge sentences her to death at San Quentin Prison by lethal gas. Ed says the husband wants to change his testimony. Barbara tells the press that they chewed her up, and she accuses Montgomery of leading the pack.
In a moving car Barbara says the prison looks like a college. Inside she says it is better than other places she was in. Matrons take her to her cell in isolation because of her death sentence.
Barbara dances to a jazz record in her cell. She sees the lights dim and learns it means two minutes to lights out. Barbara takes off her dress and is in a black slip. The matron says she can’t wear that there because it is too provocative. The matron advises her to wear their night gown. Barbara refuses to wear the nightgown and says she will sleep raw. She takes off her slip, and the matron tells her to cover herself. They leave, and she puts the slip back on.
Matthews tells Carl G. G. Palmberg (Theodore Bikel) that she had refused to take a lie detector test, but now she wants to take one. A matron brings Barbara into the room. Matthews tells her that Tibrow asked him to reconsider taking her appeal. First he wants Carl to talk to her before he decides. Carl says hello to her. Matthews says he is a psychologist and is going to give her some tests. Carl asks Al to leave, and he does. Carl asks her what book she is reading, and she says it is poetry. Carl tells her a funny limerick with a long last line. She says they may get along, and he hopes so. He gives her a Rorschach test, and she sees a rain cloud, Bobby, and a bed.
Outside Ed asks Carl what he thinks, and he quotes Ed that she is immoral and guilty. Carl advises Matthews to take the appeal because he thinks she is innocent. He says the two men accused her because they believe that a woman will not be executed, and then they won’t be either. Carl says she has an aversion to violence. Also she is left-handed, and the evidence was that the murderer was probably right-handed. Carl says evidence will not save her, but he says the press can change the climate they created. Carl says Ed may have had it in mind of changing his point of view, and that is why he came.
Barbara writes a letter to Peg and says Matthews is taking her appeal. She likes Carl and feels better. She writes to Matthews that she wants to take a lie detector test. She says the interviews with Montgomery are paying off.
Barbara is being treated by a dentist, and Carl comes in. He turns off the radio jazz. When they are alone, he tells her that her appeal was denied. She asks if they set a date. He says it is December 3, but Al immediately asked for a stay. She says no; she does not want a stay and wants it to be over on December 3. She says she can’t stand it anymore and holds on to his jacket. He holds her, and she asks what she is going to do. He says she is going to get her teeth fixed. He has her sit down and goes out.
Barbara is in bed and is distraught. At night she wakes up screaming. A matron asks if she had bad dreams again. She asks to be left alone.
Peg brings Bobby to see her, and Barbara picks him up and plays with him. Two matrons watch. She sits down and bounces him on her knee while chanting a poem. A matron takes the child to get ice cream, and Peg sits next to her and puts her arm around her. Barbara says she never should have had her child. She says by staying alive she will cause him to suffer. A matron tells her that the United States Supreme Court granted her a stay of execution.
In bed Barbara is writing a letter to Carl. She says waiting two months has been a strain. She says she does want to live, and he is her greatest hope.
Barbara learns that Carl died, but Ed tells her she has much going for her with committees and himself. He says the Supreme Court denied her petition, and her new date is June 3. He says Al is working on legal remedies. She says win or lose she sells a lot of newspapers. Ed tries to explain that he feels differently now from what he wrote during her trial.
George Putnam shows Barbara getting in a car and says she does not look like a murderer. He says she still has hope before her execution tomorrow.
The car returns her to San Quentin Prison.
Ed learns that a condemned man who could clear her will not see him.
Barbara in handcuffs is escorted to her cell on June 2, 1955. She asks them to turn off the radio music. A nurse (Alice Backes) is taking the first watch and urges her to change into something more comfortable. The nurse says she has to take off her clothes. Barbara refuses and shouts at her. A matron comes in and warns her, but she asks what they can threaten her with now. The warden (Raymond Bailey) comes in and asks her for a cigarette. He asks if she has any special requests. She says she wants to see her lawyer. She asks where the gas chamber is, and he says she can order whatever she wants for dinner. The nurse asks the warden if she has to examine her because she refused, and he says it is okay. Barbara says she will spend her last night in scarlet pajamas.
The gas chamber is being prepared. A man measures out sulfuric acid.
A matron brings dinner, and Barbara says she does not want it. Father Devers (John Marley) comes in, and she says she is glad to see him. She says she is not afraid to die. She is looking forward to coming face to face with the one person who knows she is innocent. He gives her a medal of Saint Jude, the saint of the impossible. She says she wants to go to confession, and he comes in the cell and sits down. She kneels in front of him and confesses that she has sinned.
Later Barbara and the nurse are listening to jazz music. A news bulletin reports that four couples have offered to adopt her 3-year-old son. She tells them to shut off the radio. Al Matthews comes in, and Barbara says no one is going to take her kid. Al tells her that Bobby is staying with his grandmother. He says things look good, and the judge is studying his petition. He will argue it in the morning. He wants pressure on the judge. He says Ed is trying to get a statement from Perk that will clear her. She presumes it will be an exclusive. Al says the Governor turned down her plea for clemency. She tells him not to beg for her life. She gives him a letter and asks him to deliver it for her. The matron says they will have to read it, and Barbara says he knows the law.
Late at night Barbara and the nurse are listening to jazz. The news comes on, and the nurse changes the channel to classical music. Barbara says she likes it. She asks the nurse about her husband, and she says she is getting divorced. Barbara says Henry was a wonderful husband and a doting father. She had an ideal marriage, and the nurse asks what happened. Barbara says she left him because she was holding him back for a promotion at the bank where he worked. The nurse asks her if she is going to rest, and Barbara says she does not want to rest.
At 8 in the morning men come in to operate the gas chamber. One knocks on a door and says good morning to the nurse. She and Barbara are eating hot fudge sundaes. The man takes the phone out, and Barbara says it never rang once.
In the gas chamber the man calls for a phone check, and they call back. The Governor’s line is open, and he tells them to stop all outgoing calls at 9. A man with gloves opens a can of cyanide eggs and dumps them on a cloth. They tie the cloth to a chain and measure the chain.
Ed is reading a newspaper with a headline on the execution. He learns the men refuse to see him, and he gets angry at them. An officer asks why she was shacked up with them.
The two men prepare the gas chamber and test the air lock.
Barbara paces in her cell while the priest reads the Bible silently. At 9:15 he goes out. Barbara combs her hair by a little mirror. She hears the phone ring. Two men come in and says that Governor gave her a stay, but she learns it is only so that her lawyer can argue her case in court this morning. She thanks them.
At 10:25 several men are waiting in the gas chamber. The priest is drinking coffee in her cell. The phone rings, and the warden says they will make it 10:45. He goes and tells Barbara that her writ was denied, and the stay is vacated. She asks for time to dress, and she is given fifteen minutes.
They cyanide bags are placed in the gas chamber. Many men are allowed in to witness the execution.
Barbara puts on her earrings, and she asks if she looks okay. The nurse says she looks nice. She gives the tiger toy to the nurse for her kids. A man rolls out a carpet for her to walk without her shoes. She refuses and says she looks better with them on. A man brings straps for her to put on, and he says it is for a stethoscope.
A man pours a liquid into a container.
She has put on the straps and asks if she has to go out there like that.
At 10:45 the warden nods, and a man tells Barbara that it is time. They let her walk in her shoes. A man opens the gas chamber door, and the phone rings. The warden answers, and she is taken back to her cell. The warden announces to the press that an amended writ has been filed in state court.
The phone rings, and the warden says they will make it 11:30. He tells Barbara he is sorry. She asks for a mask because she does not want to look at people staring at her. A matron says she has a sleeping mask. She brings it, and Barbara puts it over her eyes. A man and the priest guide her by each arm to the gas chamber. She whispers to the priest that she didn’t do it. He goes out, and they seat her in the gas chamber and strap in her body in several places. The cord is connected. The man advises her to count ten when she hears the pellets drop, saying it is easier that way. She asks him how he knows. At 11:35 a man says okay, and the liquid begins draining. The warden nods, and a man causes the cyanide eggs to drop into the liquid. Fumes enter the chamber. Barbara appears to breathe in and bows her head. She raises her head and clenches her fists. Her head falls to the side and the front, and her hands relax.
Outside Ed walks away. A taxi arrives, and Ed tells Matthews that it is over. Matthews gives him a letter from Barbara, and her voice is heard as he reads her thank you note. Ed hears cars tooting and turns his hearing off so that he does not have to hear them. The cars leave.
Ed Montgomery’s signed statement that this is a true story is displayed.
The facts as presented in the film make it appear that Barbara was not guilty because she was not even there, and thus the film makes a strong case against capital punishment. However, some have argued that the case was not presented as it truly was and that the real Barbara Graham was probably guilty. Nevertheless this drama reflects the mood in the press and on television news present at that time and also depicts how the California gas chamber functioned.