Based on a novel by Richard Powell, a young man in Philadelphia society is disappointed in love but becomes a successful lawyer amid complicated relationships.
Anthony Judson Lawrence (Paul Newman) narrates the story that begins in June 1924 when Kate Judson Lawrence (Diane Brewster) married William Lawrence (Adam West) instead of Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith). Kate and Bill stay in a nice hotel according to his mother’s plans. She asks for a kiss, and he pours champagne for them. She says the train is leaving early in the morning and goes into the bedroom to undress. He says she is lovely and kisses her passionately. Then he says he cannot make her happy because his mother arranged the marriage. He says he cannot love her or anyone and runs out. She is shocked and cries.
Flanagan with a woman is drunk and lights his lamp. He sees Kate there and tells the other woman to leave. She is crying and has to talk to him.
Mary Judson is upset, and Kate comes in at four in the morning. Mary says she was worried. Mary says the police called and told them that Bill was killed in a car accident.
Kate gives birth to a baby boy and is congratulated by her mother Mary. Mrs. Lawrence comes in and asks to speak to Kate alone. She says the child is not her grandson, but Kate threatens to reveal the truth. Mrs. Lawrence says she nor the child will get any money from her.
Mike visits Kate and says he saw her mother. She asks him not to come there anymore. He says he loves her and wants to marry her, but she says she can never marry him because of the child. He says they could go somewhere else, but she wants to stay in Philadelphia. She wants to maintain a social position and hopes to work as a secretary. Mike says he is making money, but she wants her son to have the right contacts. He says he can make a Lawrence out of him; but he is his son, and he will be around to watch over him. He does not care if she does call him Anthony Judson Lawrence.
A newspaper has a picture of Anthony J. Lawrence in the class of 1947 who was on a Princeton debate panel. Anthony is working during the summer as a foreman on a construction site. Mike Flanagan gives him instructions and offers a bonus if they get done early. He asks about his mother, and Anthony says she has several jobs. Anthony reprimands workers who are loafing. The truck runs into the car of a young woman. The driver gets out, and they argue over who was at fault. Anthony intervenes and pushes the big man who slugs him. Anthony throws the man against the truck and helps him up. He calls another man to move the truck. He helps them untangle the two vehicles. She has trouble starting the car, and an old lady toots behind her car. She backs up into the lady’s car. She and Anthony laugh, and she drives off.
Kate tells Tony he should not have fought with a truck driver. She suggests he leave that job, but he likes the money. She urges him to ask Chet Gwynn for a favor, but he disagrees. Flanagan calls on them and stands up for Anthony’s fighting. She puts a flower in Anthony’s lapel before he goes out to a formal party.
At the party Anthony and Chet Gwynn (Robert Vaughan) drink at the bar. Uncle Morton Stearnes (Robert Douglas) tells Chet what he should do. Chet shakes hands with Dr. Shippen Stearnes (Frank Conroy) and introduces Anthony. Shippen says he knew his grandmother. Shippen urges Chet to get a job like Anthony has. Chet says he has trouble getting his own money from Morton. Chet says hello to Carter Henry and introduces him and Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush) to Anthony. Chet says Carter is rich. Anthony and Joan realize that they met when her car hit the truck. They dance together. Outside they smoke and talk. He says he is working for the money. He has one more year at Princeton and then three years of law school to go. She wishes she had more choices in men. She is not engaged to Carter but expects he will propose. She says he is going away for the summer. He asks if he can call her, and she is agreeable. She says her father is a lawyer, and he likes that.
Anthony and Joan date, and he drives her car.
Joan meets Chet at Ernie’s restaurant, and they discuss her staying with or leaving Tony. She says her father likes him. Chet says maybe they can pull it off. He advises her not to wait. Chet says he was married for two days before her family annulled it. Now he drinks. He advises her to marry him now by making him do so.
Tony and Joan are embracing on a blanket near the car. He says he has a voice in his head warning him to stop. He says he has one decision and suggests they can get married in the morning. She asks if he will be sorry. He says no, and she is ready with a bag packed.
He parks the car at home and tells her he will be right back. His mother Kate opens the door and tells Joan to come in too. She has a surprise for them, and they find her father Gilbert Dickinson (John Williams) there. Joan asks how she gave it away. He knew she was packing from the maid. Tony says they are getting married tonight. Gilbert wishes they had come to him first. Kate asks Tony if he is willing to discuss it. Gilbert asks Joan to leave the room, and Kate takes her to the kitchen. Gilbert suggests he and Tony have a drink. Tony fixes them, and Gilbert asks if he has made plans. He says his daughter is not ordinary. He says she could try to make an adjustment to little money, and Tony would be tempted to compromise. Tony says he could work in the construction business, and Gilbert asks if he would give up the law. Gilbert offers to be his preceptor for law school, and he could work in their office with a good salary. After passing the bar, he could come into the firm and eventually become a partner. Tony is amazed, and Gilbert says he will not get special consideration. Gilbert tells Tony to let him be the villain on delaying the wedding. Joan comes in, and Tony says they have to wait until June because it is more practical. Gilbert asks Joan to drive him home for his appointment.
Joan is driving her father home and asks him what he said to talk him out of it. He explains to her what he offered Tony. She says her father made a concession. She asks if he had said no, whether the offer would have stood. Her father says probably not. She is disappointed and cries. He suggests she go to Europe with her friend Sally. She says she might.
Tony meets with Gilbert and says he has not heard from Joan for two weeks. Gilbert shows him a telegram from Joan saying that she married Carter Henry in Europe. Gilbert says he still hopes Tony will come into his firm. Tony says nothing and walks out.
Tony and Chet are drunk at a restaurant, and Chet makes a call to Mrs. Lawrence. Tony takes the phone and thinks he is talking to Zelda. Chet takes the phone, and Mike asks where they are. Mike joins Tony and Chet at the bar. Tony bows his head and cries about Joan getting married. Mike helps him with his coat and takes him home.
Kate asks Mike what she can do, and he says she already did enough. Tony says she sold herself to the highest bidder. Tony says he got a good connection with Gilbert, but it cost him. He has learned a rule of the game.
Tony attends law school at the University of Pennsylvania. He helps a student pick up his spilled books. Louis Donetti (Paul Picerni) tells Tony that the Wharton law firm is hiring him to work for them. He knows that Tony will be working for Dickinson.
Tony asks his mother if she knows John Marshall Wharton, and she says she knows his wife well. He asks about her, and she says she is charming and attractive.
Tony calls on the Whartons, and Carol Wharton (Alexis Smith) gives him files and bills. He gives her a list of symphony donors from his mother, and she realizes he is not from the office. He puts the files down. He asks to speak to Mrs. Wharton, and she says she is her. He did not realize she was so young. She says they are moving to the country for the summer. He says he heard her husband at law school. She invites him to have coffee and talk. She says her husband wants to hire someone to research the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Tony stays at the Wharton house, and after horse-back riding he and Carol come back to John Marshall Wharton (Otto Kruger) at his desk. She invites him to attend their dinner party.
That evening Tony finds Carol dancing alone and dances with her. Her husband sees them. They have martinis. Joan and Carter Henry arrive, and Wharton introduces to Carter to Tony. Joan and Tony see each other. He says she looks good. She says he abandoned her father, and he says they never got started.
Later Carol in her nightgown stands by the window and sees her husband sleeping. She goes out and knocks on Tony’s door. He is in bed and pretends to be asleep. She comes in and notices smoke from his cigarette. She puts it out, and he takes her hand, saying she is crazy. She says her walk to his room was the longest in her life. She kisses him, and he responds. They embrace, and she says she forgot how it feels. She says they should give themselves some time. He says he wants more. He cannot use her and forget her. He says he can give her a lot. He asks her to get a divorce and marry him. She says she can’t. He sits down. She can’t start her life over now and kisses him. She thanks him and goes out.
Tony calls on Wharton who has been reading the year’s work Tony did. Wharton is aware of undercurrents in their relationship. Tony did not ask to be in the firm. Wharton says advancement will be slow. Tony says he could specialize in taxes, a new field. Wharton says he will get him an office next week, but he notes the Korean War just started.
In Korea Lt. Anthony Lawrence finds Chet wounded in a hospital tent. Tony says he works on court martials. They talk, and Chet says he lost his arm. Chet says Carter is there too. Chet says he got a letter from Joan. Two soldiers come in to take Chet who is going home.
Tony returns on a plane and is met by Kate and Mike. Tony asks Kate about Chet, but she says he may be out of town. Tony sees Joan and shakes hands with her. She says she is going to Montevideo. He asks about Carter, and she says he was killed a month ago. Tony asks if she will be gone long. She says she does not know. She leaves. Tony tells Mike and Kate that he is going right back to work at Wharton.
At the firm Tony is given work on Christmas needed the next day. Tony goes into his small office, and Donetti visits him and says he has been back quite a while. Donetti thanks him for keeping him out of that firm. Donetti says he is working in politics with Flanagan. He invites Tony to join them. Tony realizes he does not get good clients at that firm.
As Donetti is leaving, Mrs. Allen (Billie Burke) asks him to recommend a lawyer. She goes up and asks Tony to add a codicil to her will. She wants to make sure that someone would take care of her dog. He writes a note, asking his secretary to tell him who this lady is. She says Donetti recommended him. She says her regular lawyer is Dickinson, and he offers to call him for her. Wharton calls and tells Tony that she is a director and owner of the Allen Oil Company. She is a multi-millionaire. Wharton advises him to notify Dickinson that she is there. Wharton says he will call Gilbert. She wants to leave her dog to Mrs. Carter Henry. She says she donates $5,000 a year to an animal charity. He suggests that she could save money by donating stock so that she does not have to pay capital gains tax. She wishes the Dickinson firm had told her that. As she is about to leave, Gilbert and Wharton come in. She says Tony looked after her well. She thanks Tony for helping her save money on that other matter. She advises Wharton to give him a bigger office, and she leaves with Gilbert. Tony tells Wharton that he conducted himself properly. Wharton predicts that Gilbert will explode.
Gilbert complains to Wharton and Tony, demanding that Tony write a letter of apology. Tony declines and says it would be dishonest of him to say that he could not save her money. Gilbert demands that he prove that, or he will sue him and stalks out. Tony tells Wharton he will not have to demand his resignation.
In his office Tony asks his secretary to get information on Mrs. Allen. He calls Mike and asks him if he can get him information from county records. Mike tells him to come over and makes a call.
Later Mike brings food to Tony as he works at a desk.
Tony meets with Mrs. Allen, Joan, Wharton, and Gilbert. They sit around Wharton’s desk. Gilbert asks for his proof. Tony explains to Mrs. Allen about the tax she has to pay on her stock. He suggests that she could transfer some Allen Oil Company business to Pennsylvania, and that would save her $200,000 a year. Gilbert says she would not want to do that juggling act, but she likes the idea. Joan points out that her father is not a tax specialist and that Tony has become one. Gilbert says Mrs. Allen can turn over her affairs to anyone she wants, and he goes out. Mrs. Allen asks Joan what to do, and she says she has hired Tony. Wharton says he will draw up a letter. Tony asks to speak to Joan as the other two go out. She says he is on his way now. He asks her to take the edge off her voice. She turns to go, and he stops her. She says she is an institution now. She wants to do her job as Carter’s widow. She agrees to see him and asks him not to expect much. He says he will call her Friday.
Mike and Donetti are meeting with Tony in his office and ask him to run for the city council. Donetti says he was getting fat before he took a position in the D.A.’s office. Mike says the Council is only the beginning. Tony takes a call from Joan who reminds him about dinner. Tony says he will think it over, and they leave. Tony tells Joan about their suggestion.
Tony comes in to a cocktail party and is welcomed by Joan. Gilbert shakes hands with Tony and says he does not want to carry a grudge. Mrs. Allen shows Tony around. Gilbert tells Joan he is glad she is seeing Tony again and asks if Tony might come back to his firm. Tony sees Dr. Shippen and Morton again. Tony asks about Chet who was in California. Morton says it is disgraceful. Shippen and Morton quarrel about asking Tony to help. Morton tells Joan he has to leave. Shippen asks Tony to call him tomorrow.
Tony comes home late and kisses his mother goodnight. He tells her that he and Joan may get married. She answers the phone and says it is the police. Tony is told that a one-armed drunk says he knows him.
Tony goes and finds Chet in a cell looking like a bum. The officer helps Chet stand up, and Tony helps him leave. Donetti sees Tony and asks him if this is Chet Gwynn. Donetti says he is holding Chet for the murder of Morton Stearns. Chet collapses and cries.
Tony sees the headline and says he does not represent Gwynn. Dr. Shippen Stearns calls Tony and says they have contacted criminal lawyers. He asks if Chet told him anything, and Tony says no. Tony says he is going down to see him. Shippen asks him to call him later.
Tony visits Chet who says the whole thing is crazy. Chet asks what is going to happen to him, and he wants Tony to help him. Tony says his uncle Shippen called him, and he has two good lawyers. Chet does not want Shippen, but Tony says he is a corporation lawyer. Chet says Morton and Shippen stole his inheritance. They gave him a job he did not like. He never got the $1,500,000. Chet says he signed a check with Morton’s name on it. He went to Los Angeles and drank and got sick. Chet says his landlady saved his life. He cries and says she had an accident. He asked Morton to send money to help this lady, but Morton refused. Chet says Morton hung up on him. He says they do not care about him. Tony says he will help him somehow. He says Chet has to tell him everything. Chet admits he went to see Morton with a gun. Tony asks why he got a gun, and Chet says it was to kill himself. He bought the gun earlier. Tony asks him about a threat he made on the phone to Morton that he had something to use on him. Chet explains he found out that Morton had a woman who is married. Tony asks what happened when he got there. Chet says he bought a bottle, and the butler let him in. Chet fells asleep. Morton woke him up by yelling at him. Tony asks if the gun went off, and Chet says he does not know.
Tony returns to his office and finds Shippen and Joan waiting for him. Tony says they are going to charge Chet with first-degree murder unless there are extenuating circumstances. Shippen says he has consulted the family, and they want Tony to represent Chet. Joan says Chet refused their lawyers. Shippen says that Donetti is going to put the “Philadelphia way of life” on trial. Shippen says Chet is guilty, and Tony says there are degrees of guilt. Shippen says no jury will give him the death penalty because of his war injury. Shippen says they can have him put in an institution. Shippen expects Tony to help him as someone from respectable families.
Joan in an evening dress gives Tony a drink and says she cooked dinner. He asks her what Shippen did, and he says she agreed with him; but she denies that. He kisses her, and she says he could withdraw from the case. She could hire the lawyer, and they could advise him. She says this will get worse each day. She says Chet agrees with her. She wants to save him. He asks her if she thinks he would sell him out. She says he has maneuvered from the time he refused to marry her before. He gets angry and tells her to stay away from him. He asks why she wanted to marry him, and she says she did even though he did not live up to her expectations.
Dr. Shippen Stearns calls on Kate Lawrence.
Tony is discussing the case with Kate and Mike who says he has worked to hard to get where he is. Mike asks if he has to attack the Stearns family. Tony says it is his life, and Mike asks him to consider his mother. Kate says Mike is trying to protect him. She says Tony has to know the truth. Tony asks what truth. Kate says Dr. Stearns was the executor of his estate, and he is threatening to reveal that his father was not William Lawrence. Tony looks at Mike and says this is quite a moment. Mike warns him what they could do to his mother. Mike asks what he can do, and Tony says he does not know.
Kate listens to the news about the trial in which Donetti is proving his case.
In court George Archibald (Richard Deacon) is called to testify. He was butler for Morton Stearns. Donetti asks him if he was there when Morton was killed and to tell what happened. Archibald says Chet was drunk and upset. He says there was bad blood between Morton and Chet. He says Chet forced his way in and waited and refused to accept a drink, fearing it would be poisoned. Morton came in and closed the doors. Archibald heard them quarrelling and was summoned to remove two glasses to please Morton. At 9:43 Morton gave him another glass and told him to go to bed. Archibald says he went to sleep. He woke up before he heard the shot. He found Morton on the floor, and Chet was gone. Tony asks for a longer lunch break, and the judge agrees.
Tony cross-examines Archibald. He asks if he saw the defendant when he got the glasses from Morton, and he says he did not. He said he could tell Chet’s glass from the smell of the cheap liquor he was drinking. Donetti objects to a test of his ability and is over-ruled. Tony has his assistant pour two kinds of liquor into different glasses. Tony gives him one, and Archibald says it is cheap rye. The second glass he says is royal scotch. Tony hands him a third glass, and Archibald says it is water. Archibald says his throat is dry and drinks from the water glass. He chokes and says it is gin. Donetti objects that this test is neither relevant nor material. He is over-ruled again. Tony asks Archibald if the fumes may have saturated his sense of smell. Archibald admits it. Tony reminds him that he had drunk brandy that night. Archibald admits he may have been mistake about what had been in the glasses. Tony asks what awakened him. Tony asks if the sound could have come from the garden gate as Chet was leaving. Donetti objects to the question.
Tony calls Dr. Shippen Stearns. Mrs. Allen tells Joan that Tony is taking a chance. Tony asks Shippen if he attended a dinner party that night. Tony asks about the argument he had with Morton. Tony asks him if he relieved him of certain family responsibilities. Shippen says that Morton had become erratic lately. Donetti objects, and it is sustained. Tony asks if Morton had not been well. Tony says that for six weeks Morton had been suffering from a painful brain tumor. Tony asks why he did not mention that. Shippen says he assumed that Chet was guilty. Tony asks if Morton might have used the gun to take his own life.
The jury finds the defendant not guilty. Mrs. Allen hugs Chet and invites him to stay with her. Chet thanks Joan and embraces her. Kate hugs Tony, and Mike shakes his hand. Donetti congratulates Tony, and they shake hands. Joan has remained with Tony. She says what he did was tremendous. He says it was only necessary. He feels he is not as good nor as bad as he thought he was. He invites her to go out eat a hamburger, and she accepts. He kisses her, and they walk out together.
This drama explores Philadelphia society and depicts a young man whose ambition to succeed appears to be a little stronger than his romantic inclinations. He makes difficult choices while charting a moral course in a complicated social world.