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At a Miami nightclub, gangster Bert Galvin watches Ruth Williams sing each night and eventually offers her a shot at stardom in New York, under his guidance. Although Ruth repeatedly refuses him, she gives in after Bert promises to keep their relationship strictly professional. As they leave Florida, they stop for dinner in the town of Rosewood, where they are spotted by Sheriff Bill Langley. The sheriff promptly informs Tom Dunning, whose brother was killed by Bert, that the gangster is eating at Claude's Restaurant. When Tom heads to the restaurant with a gun, Claude warns Bert, giving the gangster enough time to shoot Tom first. Bert is arrested and brought to jail, where Milo Bragg, a slick Southern lawyer, arrives to defend him. Although Langley and District Attorney Arthur Sherbourne try to protect Ruth, Bragg strong-arms her into testifying on Bert's behalf. At the trial, Claude lies that Bert acted purely in self-defense, and the bored court reporters assume the mobster will be acquitted, just as he was after killing Tom's brother. Ruth begins her testimony by repeating Claude's story, but after Sherbourne exhorts her to tell the truth under oath, she breaks down and names Bert as a murderer. Bert is sentenced to serve twenty years without parole in the Florida state prison labor camp. There, Bert's "trusty," Sam Nugent, an armed fellow inmate who watches over the prisoners, hates him immediately and punishes Bert's rebelliousness by putting him in solitary confinement. Days later, Bert arranges for his henchmen, Gandy and Nero, to await him in a speedboat under the bridge his group is building. Before he can jump, however, inmate Sam Gower warns him that Nugent will receive an automatic pardon for shooting anyone who runs and so will stop at nothing to prevent his escape. That night, Gower tells Bert that, since they are all "under the gun" of the trusty, he should serve his time placidly. Bert, however, continues to scheme for his release, and over the next few weeks lies to prisoner Five Shot, who dreams of escaping and getting rich, about a stack of money he has hidden in a New Orleans hotel room. Inflamed with his fantasies, Five Shot eventually tries to break free and is shot by Nugent, who immediately is granted a pardon. As Bert had predicted, no one else will volunteer to be a despised trusty, and he wins the position easily. When Langley discovers that Bert is now allowed to carry a rifle, he accuses the warden of having been paid off, but cannot demote Bert. Meanwhile, Bert promises a job to Sam when they are both released and offers to let him escape. Sam, however, realizes that Bert merely wants to earn his own pardon by shooting an escaping prisoner, and refuses to run. Two years later, Bragg visits Bert. The lawyer, who lost his license after the trial and is now an alcoholic, begs Bert for money, and Bert pays him to uncover information about Sam. Bragg soon sends a letter detailing Sam's crime, a murder, and his poverty-stricken, ill wife and children. Bert offers to send Sam's family $25,000 if Sam will run, and Sam, guilt-stricken over destroying his family, desperately agrees. On the appointed day, Sam jams Bert's gun and almost escapes, but is finally killed by Bert, whose pardon is granted within weeks. Langley immediately begins to investigate Sam's death. When the sheriff's secretary translates the shorthand notebook Sam left behind, Langley learns about the bargain. Meanwhile, Bert tracks down Ruth, who lives nearby, and forces her to accompany him, Gandy and Nero to New York. They quickly run into a roadblock, however, which Langley's men have erected, and Gandy hits the gas to escape. With Langley on their tail, the fugitives run out of gas and a gunfight breaks out. Bert grabs Ruth and races to a speedboat on a nearby river. Langley follows them to the other shore, where Bert, still dragging Ruth, runs into a swampy woods. When Bert climbs into a small rowboat, Ruth grabs his gun but cannot kill him. He rows off, but Langley soon spots him and shoots him down, reciting a quote about vengeance from Sam's notebook.