Orson Welles adapted the novel by Sherwood King about a young man who is hired for the wife of a rich lawyer whose partner offers him money to stage a phony murder.
Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) rescues Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) from ruffians in a park and drives her carriage. She offers him a job on her husband's ship, but he says no. Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) goes to the hiring hall, finds Michael, and buys him drinks. Michael takes drunk Bannister to his yacht, and Elsa persuades him to take the job.
Bannister's law partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) meets them in the West Indies. Michael admits he killed a man. Elsa is seductive to Michael, who is scared but kisses her. Bannister says that he does not mind that Michael is in love with his wife. Michael asks why they call each other names and compares them to sharks. In Acapulco, Grisby offers Michael $5,000 for killing him. Elsa says she considers suicide too and tells Michael he cannot take care of himself or her.
They dock at Sausalito. Grisby tells Michael that he wants to disappear by having people think he is dead. He explains it can't be murder unless there is a corpse. He has written Michael's confession, and Michael shows it to Elsa. The steward Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia) tells Grisby what he heard and asks him for money, but Grisby shoots Broome. Grisby and Michael crash a car into a truck. Wounded Broome tells Elsa that her husband may be murdered. Grisby spills his blood in the car and takes a small boat. Michael fires his gun and says it was target practice. Michael tries to call Elsa, but Broome answers and warns Michael he was framed. Michael finds Bannister and sees that Grisby is dead. Michael is arrested for murder, and Bannister says he will defend him.
Bannister tells Elsa that Michael's gun killed Broome. She visits Michael in jail, and he says that Grisby killed Broome. In the trial the prosecutor calls Bannister as a witness, and Bannister cross-examines himself. Elsa is asked if Michael is in love with her. While the jury is coming back in, Bannister tells Michael that he is glad to lose his case and that he will be executed. Michael says he knows who killed Grisby. Michael swallows Bannister's pills and escapes from the courthouse. Elsa follows him into a Chinese theater. Michael says she killed Grisby and passes out. He wakes in a crazy funhouse. In a hall of mirrors Elsa has a gun and tells Michael she had to kill Grisby after he killed Broome. Bannister comes in and has a gun too. They shoot at mirrors, and both are shot. She begs Michael not to leave her to die, but he walks out.
This nihilistic drama suggests that civilization may
perish in violence, but the protagonist manages to survive while
the cynical manipulators kill each other.