Harry Dawes (Bogart) is a past-his-prime alcoholic film director who is trying to make a comeback after quitting drinking. Insufferable rich Jerkass film producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) has taken Harry to Spain to search out "a new face" for motion pictures. In Madrid they see a nightclub performance by castanet dancer Maria Vargas (Gardner). Edwards and Dawes are both enchanted. Maria takes an instant dislike to Edwards because he is an insufferable rich Jerkass, but she forms a bond with good-hearted Harry, and Harry convinces Maria to leave for America and take a shot at a career in the movies.
Maria adopts the stage name Maria D'Amata and becomes a huge movie star. Yet she is not happy, not being comfortable amongst the rich jet set, feeling more at home among the type of common people she grew up with. She rejects the attentions of loathsome Kirk Edwards, spending time with rich South American playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) instead. Then she finds love with an Italian count, Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi)—or so she thinks. Eventually, tragedy strikes.
Edward O'Brien won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Oscar Muldoon, Kirk's toadying publicist.
Silent film star Bessie Love has one line as a guest at dinner.
- Barefoot Poverty: Maria grew up too poor to afford shoes, but she comes to enjoy going barefoot.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Trope Maker? Maria does not care for shoes and prefers to go barefoot. She does this several times, like when she goes off with Harry, or when she goes off with the Count, or when she insists on posing barefoot for her statue.
- Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Averted. Maria's father murders her mother. It is revealed in court that Maria's mother was a horrible monster of a woman who frequently hit Maria's father. Maria's father is acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
- Feet-First Introduction: The first we see of Maria is a closeup of her bare feet as she makes out with a man in her dressing room closet.
- Flashback: Most of the movie, including a couple of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, as when Maria in Flashback 1 is telling Harry about Vincenzo being impotent, as dramatized in Flashback 2.
- Foregone Conclusion: The movie starts with Maria's funeral.
- Framing Device: Harry, Oscar, Alberto, and Vincenzo, all at Maria's funeral, thinking about the past and how they knew her.
- Horrible Hollywood: Full of cynical dirtbags like Kirk and Oscar. Maria has great success but doesn't enjoy it, writing everything off as phony.
- Information Wants to Be Free: Kirk and Oscar are puzzled over why three movie studio bosses were invited to the showing of Maria's screen test. Harry tells them that he invited them, and the reason is that if Maria refuses to sign with Kirk, and Kirk then tries to wreck her reputation—part of Kirk's standard MO when someone pisses him off—the other studio bigwigs will know that she is awesome.
- It Always Rains at Funerals: A suitably grim mood for Maria's funeral.
- Knight in Sour Armor: A part Bogart had been playing at least since Casablanca. Here, Harry is a cynical Deadpan Snarker but also one who platonically loves Maria and will fight for her.
- Lady Drunk: Myrna, the bitter, drunken actress who hangs around Kirk and seems willing to accept his contempt and abuse. She tells Harry that the reason she sticks with Kirk is that she is a "frightened tramp".
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: The loins sleep forever for Vincenzo, since his groin injury suffered in combat in 1942. Vincenzo keeps this nugget of info to himself until after he and Maria are married.
- Moment Killer: In his first meeting with Maria, Harry has to become one to talk with her because she and a man from the audience are busy making out in her dressing room closet. Harry eventually gets Maria's attention by saying "Senorita, your bare feet are showing."
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mankiewicz later said that the Maria-Vincenzo thing was inspired by Rita Hayworth's marriage to Prince Aly Khan. Predatory oil magnate turned film producer Kirk Edwards was inspired by Howard Hughes.
- Overly Nervous Flop Sweat: Oscar the publicist. When Oscar gives Maria the hard sell re: signing a contract with Kirk, Maria is repulsed, describing Oscar to Harry as "the man with sweat on his face." Later Oscar has to wipe the flop sweat off of his face when he quits his job with Kirk.
- Pietà Plagiarism: Harry cradles Maria's body after Vincenzo shoots her to death.
- Posthumous Character: Considering that the movie starts with Maria's funeral...
- Pretty in Mink: Maria's film premiere outfit includes a fluffy white fox stole, giving her a classic movie star look.
- Private Eye Monologue: Bogart was most known for this, but in this movie, all the point-of-view characters—Harry, Oscar, Alberto, and Vincenzo—all talk like this as they narrate their experiences with Maria.
- Professional Butt-Kisser: Oscar the publicist. He is an obsequious servant for Kirk Edwards, praising him to the skies to Maria despite not actually liking him at all. When he hires on with Alberto, Oscar is just as obsequious, giving up his umbrella to Alberto at Maria's funeral.
- Stage Name: Maria Vargas becomes Maria D'Amata after she is signed on.
- Starts with Their Funeral: The film begins with Maria's sad funeral, before the story unfolds in a series of flashbacks.
- Sweater Girl: Among the cornucopia of Fanservice outfits Gardner wears in this movie is an arresting tight-sweater ensemble for the scene where Maria is flamenco dancing with some Gypsies.
- Toros y Flamenco: Ah, Spain. A place where you might sometimes go to a nightclub to see a flamenco dancer.
- Would Hit a Girl: Kirk the creep smacks Myrna across the face when she mouths off.