Joe (Tracy) is a hardworking owner of a gas station who sets out on a drive to meet up with his fiancée, Katherine (Sidney). On the way he is stopped and arrested on suspicion of being party to a kidnapping that is making newspaper headlines. The residents of the ignorant little town of Strand where Joe is being held whip themselves up into a frenzy, form a lynch mob, and burn down the jail with Joe in it.
Or so they think. One of the townspeople threw a stick of dynamite which actually wound up blowing open the bars of Joe's cell. 22 people of the town, who were caught on camera, wind up going on trial for Joe's murder, and a vengeful Joe stays in hiding rather than reveal himself and save the townspeople. The film is based on a real-life incident revolving around the kidnapping of Brooke Hart and the subsequent lynching by mob of the persons held to be responsible for the crime.
This film provides examples of:
- Anti-Hero: Joe starts out as a good guy, but after the traumatic events of almost being burned alive by a raging mob, he becomes a case of He Who Fights Monsters, trying to get justice for the crimes committed against him, even if it means to forge evidence.
- Artistic License History: In the original case, the two men lynched by the mob are agreed to have been the actual culprits. For the sake of the film, the incident is fictionalized and the accused is made an innocent. Fritz Lang, who wanted to explore the idea of capital punishment, felt that this was a weakness since according to him you can only make a convincing case against the death penalty by stating that even the guilty shouldn't be executed.
- Battering Ram: The angry mob uses a large wooden beam to break open the door to the sheriff's quarters.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- Joe's ripped coat which Katherine mends using a blue thread. Later she sees the coat on his brother and starts to wonder.
- Katherine's ring to Joe, which turns up again in court as evidence.
- Joe's inability to correctly spell "memento" backfires later with same the error appears on the anonymous Cut-and-Paste Note, finally convincing Katherine that he's alive.
- Convicted by Public Opinion: Joe gets arrested because "it seems he knows more than he lets on" about a kidnapping. Gossip Evolution inflates it into everyone "knowing" he's the kidnapper, forming a lynch mob and burning down his prison.
- Cut-and-Paste Note: When the trial doesn't seem to be going well, Joe takes active measures to get a conviction. He makes this kind of note, and encloses his ring, in an attempt to "prove" he died in the fire.
- Dramatic Thunder: When Katherine and Joe finally meet again, there is a dramatic thunder rolling while she stands in the doorway. The scene ends with another thunder rolling as Joe proclaims that he doesn't need anybody.
- Fainting: Twice, first by Katherine as the jail burns, and later by a woman of Strand as things start looking bad in court.
- Gossip Evolution: The scanty evidence against Joe is magnified by the Gossipy Hens and everyone else in town until it becomes an iron-clad case.
- Gossipy Hens: All the old biddies of Strand that gossip about Joe's arrest and wind up flaming the passions of the mob. Lampshaded when Lang inserted a shot of actual hens during the gossip montage.
- Guilt by Coincidence: Joe drives a car similar to the kidnappers' car, Joe likes peanuts and peanut dust was found at the crime scene, and Joe acquired one $5 bill from the ransom (apparently via change). This is all it takes for the people of Strand to lynch him.
- HeelFace Turn: Joe. In the trial over his murder, the townspeople are found guilty, but before they can hang for the crime, Joe has a change of heart and shows up in the courtroom as the sentences are being read and saves them from execution.
- Heroic BSoD: Katherine slips into catatonia after watching Joe (apparently) die.
- Internal Reveal: When Joe returns home, only Charlie and Tom (and the audience) know that he is still alive. Until Joe reveals himself to the world in the final courtroom scene.
- It's Quiet... Too Quiet: After they barred themselves up in the jail house, the sheriff gets suspicious of the silence outside. Cue the mob ramming the door.
- Left the Background Music On: In a scene where Katherine is writing him a letter, a sappy '30s-style romantic soundtrack plays... until Katherine turns off the radio, apparently sick of it herself. Later, as the guilt-ridden Joe wanders the streets, he goes into an apparently busy bar only to discover that only the bartender is there; all the music and crowd noise was, again, coming from a radio that's promptly turned off.
- Memento MacGuffin: The family ring Katherine hands to Joe during their Train-Station Goodbye. It later turns into a Chekhov's Gun in court.
- Moral Luck: The entire second half of the plot revolves around the legal difference between an attempted murder and a successful one.
- Never Found the Body: Everyone apparently assumes Joe was burned to ash. He's still alive.
- One-Liner, Name... One-Liner: Joe in his prison cell to his dog when the fire starts: "Looks bad, Rainbow. Looks bad."
- One Phone Call: Averted. Joe wants to call Katherine but is denied any phone call because the sheriff fears Joe could be using the call to warn his partners in crime.
- Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: During the Gossip Evolution, patrons at a bar discuss Joe's case:Person 1: "First thing he did was phone Chicago for his lawyer."Person 2: "That's always the first thing a guy like that will do."
- Powder Keg Crowd: The angry mob at the jail house. A tomato thrown at the sheriff escalates the riot.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The sheriff. He promising Joe a square deal and keeps his word when defending him against the angry mob. Later on he refuses to identify anyone among the mob, because he doesn't want them to be put to death.
- Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Exploited. Joe is presumed dead but actually escaped the blaze. However, he stays in hiding in order to get the townspeople sentenced to death for his murder.
- Revenge: Joe seeks to get the 22 filmed members of the mob hanged for getting him killed.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The script was based upon the 1933 kidnapping and murder of Brooke Hart, the son of the owner of Hart's Department Store in San Jose, California. The two kidnapping suspects were pulled from jail by a group of vigilantes, who dragged them across the street to St. James Park and lynched both of them. The story also inspired several later films, including Cy Enfield's Try and Get Me!
- Sanity Slippage: Joe undergoes one in the third act, caused by the guilt that is weighing heavily upon him. He starts hearing Katherine's voice when watching the shop window, he sees the number 22 on the calendar at the bar and can't help but think of the 22 accused. After he leaves the bar and walks along the street, he sees some of the faces of the mob in a store window. Frightened, he begins running down the empty road as if he's being chased, the camera follows him, only showing the audience what seems to be following Joe - nothing, only his conscience.
- Sesquipedalian LoquaciousnessDistrict Attorney: Your occupation in Strand, please.
Mrs. Hooper: I'm a coutouriere and a modiste.
District Attorney: By coutouriere and modiste, you mean you're a dressmaker, do you not?
- Spinning Clock Hands: During the trial, we see a shot of a clock with the clock hands spinning, indicating hours of hearing taking place.
- Stealth Hi/Bye: The Barber's customer who disappears behind his back after some joking about a Dangerously Close Shave.
- This Is a Work of Fiction: There's a disclaimer after the open credits that characters and events are fictional.
- Torches and Pitchforks: The angry mob that invades the jail, attempting to kill Joe. When the jailer throws the keys into the cells, the mob burns the jail down.
- Train-Station Goodbye: Couldn't be played straighter than when Joe sees Katherine off.
- Two Scenes, One Dialogue: The sheriff tells his nervous deputies that the National Guard has been summoned. Cut to a very quick scene in which the mustered Guardsmen are told they will be standing down. Cut to governor saying "Why?", as his political boss says that sending the Guard into a town could be damaging. In real life, the governor actively supported the lynch mob, even saying he would pardon its members, and refused to send in the National Guard.
- Unable to Support a Wife: Joe can't, which is why Katherine leaves town to find a better job. Joe makes good with the gas station and sets out to reunite with Katherine, only to be tragically interrupted.