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|Burt Lancaster||Ole 'Swede' Andreson|
|Ava Gardner||Kitty Collins|
|Edmond O'Brien||Jim Reardon|
|Albert Dekker||Big Jim Colfax|
|Sam Levene||Lt. Sam Lubinsky|
|Virginia Christine||Lilly Harmon Lubinsky|
|Jack Lambert||'Dum-Dum' Clarke|
|Charles D. Brown||Packy Robinson - Ole's Manager|
|Donald MacBride||R.S. Kenyon|
|Jeff Corey||'Blinky' Franklin|
"TENSE! TAUT! TERRIFIC! Told the untamed Hemingway way!"
Two hit men, Max and Al (William Conrad and Charles McGraw), come to a small town to kill Ole Andreson (Burt Lancaster), aka "the Swede". The Swede's coworker warns him but, strangely, he makes no attempt to flee and they kill him.
Life insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) is assigned to find and pay the beneficiary of his policy. Tracking down and interviewing the dead man's friends and associates, Reardon doggedly pieces together his story. Police Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), a close, longtime friend of the Swede, is particularly helpful.
Through flashbacks, it is revealed that the Swede was a professional boxer whose career was cut short by an injury to his right hand. Rejecting Lubinsky's suggestion to join the police force, the Swede gets mixed up with a bad crowd, including "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker). He drops his girlfriend Lily (Virginia Christine) for the more glamorous Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). When Lubinsky catches Kitty wearing stolen jewelry, the Swede "confesses" to the crime and serves three years in prison.
When he gets out, he, "Dum Dum" Clarke (Jack Lambert) and "Blinky" Franklin (Jeff Corey) are recruited for a payroll robbery masterminded by Big Jim. Complicating matters is the fact that Kitty is now Big Jim's girl. The robbery nets the gang $250,000. When their rendezvous is burned down all of the gang members but the Swede are notified of where to meet. Kitty then informs him that he is being double-crossed. The Swede takes all of the money at gunpoint and flees. Kitty meets him later in Atlantic City then disappears with the money.
Back in the present, Reardon watches the boarding house where Ole lived. Sure enough, Dum Dum shows up, searching for a clue as to the whereabouts of the loot. Reardon gets some information from the robber, but Dum Dum gets away before the police can arrest him.
When Reardon gets confirmation of one particular detail, he is certain he knows what happened. He goes to see Big Jim, now a very successful building contractor. Reardon lies, telling Big Jim that he has enough evidence to convict Kitty. He suggests that Kitty contact him. She agrees to meet him, and they go to a nightclub at her suggestion. However, after she goes to the ladies' room, Max and Al show up and try to kill Reardon. Fortunately, he and Lubinsky are ready for them, and the two hitmen are slain instead.
Reardon and Lubinsky head to Big Jim's mansion, but are too late to stop Dum Dum and Big Jim from killing each other. Reardon explains that when he discovered that the fire that destroyed the rendezvous point had been set hours after Kitty was sent to notify everyone of the new meeting place, he realized that Kitty and Big Jim, her husband, had been setting up the Swede. Dum Dum finally figured out the truth as well. When Lubinsky asks the dying Big Jim why he had the Swede killed, Big Jim tells him he could not take the chance that another member of the gang might find the Swede, as he had. Kitty begs her husband to exonerate her in a deathbed confession, but he dies first.