Based on a novel by Jerome Odlum, an investigative reporter is framed and sent to prison, where he cooperates with a gangster who escapes.
Reporter Frank Ross (James Cagney) sees books burned at a construction company, and District Attorney Jesse Hanley (Thurston Hall) complains about his story. Frank is abducted, knocked out, and put in a moving car with alcohol. The car crashes and kills three people. In court Frank says D. A. Hanley framed him, but he is sentenced to 1-20 years. In prison gangster Stacey (George Raft) finds his enemy Limpy Julien (Joe Downing), and they fight. Frank trips Limpy, who throws a knife at him. To help a friend, Stacey goes to the hole. When he gets out, Stacey gets the knife back. During a movie Limpy gets a knife in the back, killing him. Stacey tells Frank that another guy did it but asks him to finger him so he can escape during his trial. Joyce (Jane Bryan) visits Frank and asks him to see his mother, who gives him food and cries. Frank agrees when Stacey promises no shooting at the courthouse. Frank turns in Stacey, who socks him.
In court Stacey's lawyer Lockhart (Clay Clement) tells Frank he will communicate with him. Frank has his friends covering the trial. Stacey jumps out the window into a truck and escapes. Head guard Lang (Willard Robertson) hits Frank while questioning him. Warden Armstrong (George Bancroft) reprimands Lang, and Frank is put in the hole. Hanley's man Grayce (Victor Jory) is appointed head of parole. Joyce asks Lockhart to let her see Stacey, who complains that Frank tipped off reporters. Joyce tells Stacey that Frank hasn't talked and asks Stacey to help him. Stacey tells his men to find Shake Edwards in order to clear Frank. Joyce appeals to the Warden, who shows her angry Frank. She admits she accidentally informed the Warden that Frank knew of the break. The Warden offers Frank a fresh start in thirty days. Inmate Joe Lassiter (Louis Jean Heydt) is ill, and the cruel guard Pete (John Wray) clubs him.
At the parole hearing Grayce asks Frank to admit his guilt; but Frank gets angry and then cries. Frank is refused parole. Stacey makes Shake tell him that Polecat Carlisle (Alan Baxter) framed Frank for Hanley; but Carlisle is in prison, and Stacey's men refuse to help Frank. Stacey instructs Lockhart and gives himself up to the Warden. Frank declines to join the escape. After Lassiter dies, Meuller (Stanley Ridge) kills Pete. Frank is given a gun but tries to dissuade the escapees. They get Stacey out of the hole. Stacey gives orders; but they face machine guns, and Stacey is wounded. Stacey has Carlisle say that Frank was framed, and the Warden hears it. Stacey and Carlisle are killed by a grenade. Governor Hanley and Grayce are charged with the frame-up, and the Warden releases Frank to Joyce. The Warden says that Stacey gave himself up so that Frank could live for him.
Although a gangster's self-sacrifice for a "square
guy" strains credulity, this powerful prison drama exposes
the cruelty and harmful effects of the penal system.