The film tells the story of ruthless and cynical Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), a metropolitan police detective, who despises all criminals because his father had been one.
The film is considered a classic of the film noir genre/style, and the brand of violence shown in the film, "lurking below urban society", is an important noir motif.
New York City 16th Precinct Police Detective Dixon, who's in trouble with his superiors for his heavy-handed tactics, subjects murder suspect and gambler Ken Paine (Craig Stevens) the third degree -- he strikes the drunken Paine in self-defense and accidentally kills him. Paine, however, had a silver plate in his head, a fine war record, and newspaper friends. Dixon then dumps Paine's body in the river, and is later assigned to find his killer.
Dixon tries to place the blame on an old gangster enemy, Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), yet, he inadvertently places the blame for the killing on cab driver Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully). Having fallen in love with Jigg's daughter, Morgan Taylor-Paine (Gene Tierney), Dixon tries to clear the cabbie without implicating himself, but ultimately he becomes trapped in a web created by himself.
The 16th Precinct commander, Detective Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden), Dixon's boss, is convinced that Morgan's father is the killer.
Dixon continues to find a way to stop Jiggs from being found guilty of murdering Paine, and also tries to redeem himself. In an attempt to move the evidence away from Morgan's father and blame Scalise, Dixon comes face to face with the gangster and his cronies. A shoot-out leaves Scalise dead and Jiggs is finally cleared of the charges.
At the end Dixon reassesses his life and decides to confess. He's arrested and goes to jail. He's satisfied that Morgan will wait for him until his release.
New York Times film Critic, Bosley Crowther, while thinking the script was far fetched, liked the way the dialogue was written, as well as the acting. He wrote, "...the plausibility of the script by Ben Hecht, an old hand with station houses and sleazy underworldlings, is open to question on several counts. Not so, however, his pungent dialogue and unfolding of the plot, which Otto Preminger, who guided the same stars through Laura several seasons back, has taken to like a duck to water and kept clipping along crisply till the fadeout.
The staff at Variety magazine praised the direction of the film. They wrote, "Otto Preminger, director, does an excellent job of pacing the story and of building sympathy for Andrews.