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In high-toned Desert Valley, California, drunken socialite Charleen Reston deliberately enrages her husband Michael by stumbling home wearing a torn dress. After she informs him that her current lover, bartender Larry Bell, attacked her, Michael drives to the nearby small town of Bolton, where Larry lives, and shoots him dead. Days later, reporter Ralph Adams shares a train car from New York City to Bolton with James Gordon Blane, a defense attorney infamous for defending the rich and guilty, whom Michael has hired to represent him in the trial for Larry's murder. Ralph, who admires Jim's skill but despises his politics, urges him to defend destitute, unfairly jailed Benson Powell, but Jim dismisses the idea. When the train stops briefly at the town in which Jim's estranged wife Diane and two sons live, Jim has only enough time to hug his family before leaving again. At Bolton, the townspeople regard Jim with distrust and distaste, but he ignores their stares and drives to Desert Valley to meet with the Restons. The couple claims that Larry attacked Charleen after she rejected him, and although Jim recognizes that they are shallow and ruthless, he is confident he can win Michael's acquittal. On the way back to his hotel, local sheriff Nick Hoak stops Jim and, under the guise of showing him around town, brings him to his desert ranch. There, Hoak, a former college football star, reveals that he was a mentor to Larry, whose parents run the ranch and who was a champion football player. On the drive back to town, Jim recalls seeing Hoak play college ball, and the two reminisce about Hoak's big game. While the trial unfolds over the next few days, Charleen attempts to seduce Jim, who sleeps with her but then rejects her. Jim calls Hoak as his final witness, and coerces the sheriff into revealing that Larry was his protégé and flunked out of college. By proving that Larry was actually expelled for his participation in a "panty raid," Jim convinces the jury that Larry was a troublemaker and Hoak an unreliable character witness, and the jury finds Michael not guilty. That night, Hoak informs Jim about a poker game at Rod Staley's house, where Jim loses $5,000. The next day, a juror, Carol Morrow, produces the cash as proof that Jim bribed her to win her vote. Jim races to Staley's, and upon finding the house deserted, turns to Hoak for help. When the sheriff responds tepidly, Jim realizes that Hoak has set him up. He returns to the hotel, where he is gratified to find Diane, who has heard about the charges and come to support him. Diane, who left Jim for his inveterate womanizing, still loves him, but will not agree to return to him permanently. Over the next few days, Hoak feigns interest in rounding up suspects who may have been at the poker game, but in secret calls in favors with local senators to defame Jim further. Diane convinces Jim to hire attorney Lester Rawlings to defend him, but when Lester advises Jim to prepare a plea bargain, Jim realizes Lester believes that he is guilty, and fires him. That night, Jim asks Diane to stay in his room, but she refuses, referring to his dalliance with Charleen. Later, however, Diane visits Carol, hoping to persuade her to recant her testimony, but Carol slams the door in Diane's face. Carol, who is secretly sleeping with Hoak, begs him to let her take back her complaint, prompting him to slap her. At the trial, Jim tries to break Carol down, but his self-interest causes him to push her too hard. When he accuses her of lying, she loudly reiterates her accusation and then faints, damaging his case severely. Meanwhile, Billy Giles, a Las Vegas comedian who killed his wife years earlier but was found innocent after Jim defended him, identifies Staley as a local cardsharp and heads to Bolton with a photo. Staley immediately informs Hoak, who finds Billy on the road and forces his car off a cliff, killing him. Soon after, two thugs, convinced of Jim's guilt, beat him up in an alley, after which Hoak once again pretends to gather suspects. At the trial, Jim calls Hoak to the stand, but this time the sheriff evades Jim's wily examination and claims that the two are friends, as evidenced by their shared reminiscences when they first met. Unable to deny the account, Jim is forced to end his defense in apparent defeat. Although he still refuses to hire another lawyer, he promises Diane that he will deliver the closing argument as "the kind of man" she has deserved all along. That night, Diane stays with Jim in his hotel room. The next day, Jim informs the jury of his background as a poor practitioner who could only compete with "Ivy League" lawyers by defending underworld figures. He admits that he has enjoyed his own notoriety, but has forgotten along the way the sanctity of the law. He brings up the press nickname for the Reston case, that of "The Tattered Dress," and points out that this could also refer to justice itself, which has become the victim in this trial. While the jury deliberates, Carol begs Hoak to visit her, and is shocked when he spurns her roughly. Meanwhile, Ralph informs Jim that the press believe that his speech was just another performance, which causes Diane to defend her husband. Soon after, the jury returns, and announces their verdict: not guilty. Outside the courtroom, Carol is hounded by the press about her testimony, which now appears to be false, and in response she pulls out a gun and shoots Hoak. Recognizing the shooting as evidence of Carol's guilt, Ralph apologizes to Jim. Jim informs the reporter that he will now accept the Powell case, then leaves for home with Diane.