The plot follows Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), falsely convicted of murdering his wife, as he escapes prison and sets out to clear his name. He is aided in this effort by Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), who picks up Parry in her car after his escape and chooses to help him in further endeavors because his case is exactly like her father's... although, unlike Parry, her father died in prison.
In order to avoid being recognized by the police, who have a massive dragnet out for him, Parry changes his facial features with the aid of a plastic surgeon and a friendly cab driver. But when Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), whose testimony sent him to prison and who also knows Irene, comes into the picture, Parry finds his freedom in jeopardy once more.
The original novel was part of a lawsuit involving David Goodis and the creators of The Fugitive, which Goodis alleged to have shamelessly ripped off the plot of his novel. The litigation dragged on for years, finally reaching a settlement after Goodis and his brother (the executor of his estate) were both dead and the case became merely a nuisance suit.
The film contains examples of:
- Asshole Victim: As mentioned by Vincent's friend George, Vincent's wife was spoiled and unfaithful to him. The only reason she didn't leave him was because she couldn't find anyone worth leaving Vincent for, and because she wanted Vincent to be miserable and not have anyone else.
- Back-Alley Doctor: The plastic surgeon, who insists that he is not this, but is in fact highly competent and capable, although he is a bit creepy.
- Bandaged Face: Vincent wears bandages after his surgery until his face heals.
- Bittersweet Ending: Vincent is unable to prove that Madge killed his wife and George. Madge confesses to the murders, but then falls to her death, and Vincent is forced to leave the country. Vincent narrowly escapes being seen by a police officer who had previously tried to arrest him for being suspicious, and is forced to live as a fugitive in South America. The only perk is that Irene manages to join him in hiding.
- Blackmail: A guy named Baker, who gave Vincent a lift after his escape from prison, eventually tracks him down and demands $60,000 not to turn him in to the cops. He doesn't get it.
- Boulder Bludgeon: The film opens with the wrongfully accused Vincent Parry escaping from prison and getting a lift from a passing motorist, Baker. When Baker realizes who his passenger is, Vincent punches him out of the car, knocks him unconscious, then desperately grabs a rock to kill him with. But before he can become a murderer for real, Irene (the one person who knows Vincent is innocent) shows up and persuades him not to go through with it.
- Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Parry can't get far without getting accused, with incriminating evidence moreover, of multiple murders despite being innocent of all of them.
- Cassandra Truth: When Madge demands to know who was there with Irene when she came to the door the day before, Irene tells her it was Vincent, but Bob think she's kidding and says so to Madge. Irene even points out the trope to Vincent after Madge and Bob leave.
- Celebrity Paradox: For the key plot point to work (Bogart's character getting plastic surgery to avoid recognition) this has to be a universe where Humphrey Bogart the actor does not exist and therefore would not be recognisable to any randomer on the street.
- Clear My Name: Vincent Parry's goal, which unusually for a Hollywood film of its time, fails. Vincent has to go into hiding because he's never able to get the evidence to clear his name.
- Contrived Coincidence: The film runs on a series of them (not that it's necessarily a bad thing since it adds to the claustrophobic feel of the film). For example:
- Irene, one of the only people willing to believe Vincent, just happens to find Vincent just as he's running away from prison.
- The taxi driver happens to believe him too, and even knows a guy who can help him.
- Irene just happens to be friends with Madge.
- The guy who offers Vincent a ride out of San Quentin happens to be a criminal with a huge grudge.
- The coffee shop Vincent arrives late in the evening just happens to have an off-duty cop.
- Cosmic Plaything: Vincent Parry is one of the biggest in films noir, his attempt to clear his name leads him into bizarre coincidences and Kafkaesque reversals at every turn.
- Disney Villain Death: Baker, and later Madge.
- Dream Sequence: When Vincent gets drugged to knock him out for his plastic surgery, the audience is treated to a trippy sequence of kaleidoscopic faces floating in a black void, repeating dialogue from earlier in the movie.
- The Faceless: Vincent's face is hidden for the entire first act—mostly by shooting from his POV, but also with a few scenes where he's off-screen entirely or his face is hidden by shadows. Then he has plastic surgery, and when the bandages come off we see it's now Humphrey Bogart. (His pre-surgery face is shown, but only in a newspaper photograph.)
- Faux Affably Evil: Baker, the crook who blackmails Parry, tries to offer him advice on living on the lam (advice which Parry puts to good use) but Parry realizes very quickly that Baker's a scumbag who wants to continue extorting Irene even after the initial payment.
- Femme Fatale / Woman Scorned: Madge Rapf, who killed Vincent's wife just so she could have him. And when he rejected her, she perjured herself in court to send him to jail for murder. Later, when he got out, she killed his best friend so Vincent would have no one to turn to.
- Knight in Sour Armor: Vincent and with good reason. Par for the course when played by Bogie.
- Leitmotif: "Too Marvelous for Words" is played several times as a love theme for Vincent and Irene.
- Magic Plastic Surgery:
- Averted. Vinent escapes prison and has back-alley plastic surgery so the authorities won't recognize him while he tries to prove his innocence. We don't actually see his face until after the bandages come off because the whole "before" portion of the movie is shot from his point of view.
- The reason for this is that Bogart plays the same character both before and after the surgery, but he did not in fact undergo plastic surgery in real life; the character cannot be shown in his "before" appearance because the "after" appearance is that of a man who looks just like Bogart! Arguably a case of extended Actor Allusion.
- In point of fact, we do get to see the "before" version of the character via a newspaper photograph. In another trope aversion, he actually does look a little like Bogey, only heavier-set and with a moustache.
- Marquee Alter Ego: For the first act, the protagonist is played by Bogart via voiceover but the character looks like someone entirely different (we only see his picture in the paper). Then he gets Magic Plastic Surgery in order to look like Humphrey Bogart for The Reveal and he stays that way for the rest of the film.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When Baker first realizes who Vincent Parry really is, Vincent knocks him unconscious then grabs a rock to kill him with. Irene shows up just in time to dissuade Vincent from becoming a murderer for real. But sparing Baker allows him to become a thorn in Vincent's side later, attempting to blackmail both Vincent and Irene.
- Once for Yes, Twice for No: Vincent Parry has just gotten a face-lift from plastic surgeon Dr. Walter Coley. After the operation, Parry's face is bandaged and the doctor tells him not to move his mouth until he is completely healed:Dr. Coley: Now...I'm going to ask you some questions. If the answer is "yes", just blink.
- P.O.V. Cam: The first section of the film features many scenes told entirely through Parry's perspective, largely to conceal his face and features.
- Run for the Border / Tropical Epilogue: The film ends with Vincent and Irene reuniting in Peru.
- San Francisco: The setting for the bulk of the story. One of the first Hollywood features to shoot on location in the city and not use California Doubling.
- Trailers Always Lie: The trailer completely leaves out the first person perspective segments, save one, of the first act. This leads the viewer to believe that it's a straight Bogart-Bacall film.