George Fowler (Steve McQueen), a diffident former collegiate football star, is recruited for a bank robbery gang by Gino, the cold hearted and unstable ex-convict brother of George’s estranged flame, Ann. George, initially insisting the limit of his involvement is strictly as get-away driver, is coerced deeper into the plot by John Eagen, the calculating plot leader. Gino also succeeds in pressuring the reluctant George (George being burdened with responsibility for the expulsion of both Ann and himself from college) to reconnect with Ann to beg for a subsistence stake to tide them over pending the anticipated robbery booty. Tensions of dislike and distrust seethe within the gang.
Ann, happening to spot Gino leaving the gang’s bank surveillance activity, soon extracts from George enough information to deduce that a bank robbery is about to occur. Dismayed, Ann attempts to derail the plot in hopes of saving George with a lipstick-scribbled warning on the bank’s window. The warning is however detected by the 4th gang member, Willy (John’s bullied but sneering minion from prison). John and Willy burst into George’s and Gino’s lodgings to extract the facts behind the betrayal. Gino, financially desperate to consummate the plot to avoid his own pending reincarceration, reveals Ann’s identity and past relationship with George. George is forced to take the gang to Ann’s apartment but is sent away, dubiously hopeful that Ann is being flown off to Chicago to silence her. Gino also abandons Ann on John’s orders. John, recalling his hatred for his abusive alcoholic mother, hurls Ann to her demise off the fire escape. Unaware of this murder, George is instructed that Willy is now the wheelman, forcing the inexperienced George to a role inside the bank, but he meekly declines one final opportunity to withdraw from the plot.
The next day, the robbers commence execution of the heist, having neglected to bring a police-frequency scanner and unaware the bank relocated a switchboard from the lobby, foiling key aspects of the plan. The silent alarm is triggered and police swarm the bank exterior. John is shot down attempting escape behind a female hostage. Gino, failing to find an escape route and hemmed in by prison-like bars, commits suicide in the basement vault. After momentarily considering to battle the police Willy flees, abandoning his partners, although identified and pursued.
George, hobbled by a gashed leg, initiates a panicky escape behind another female hostage, but his spirit fails when the newly wed hostage’s husband summons the courage to offer himself in her stead. Having realized that Ann’s death was due to his own cowardly and naïve actions, he tries to surrender his pistol to a bank customer who disgustedly rejects the gun back to the sobbing and broken George. George is dragged away into a paddy wagon and the film concludes with his view of the world receding behind metal bars.
By Charles Guggenheim and John Stix (YouTube) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons