powered by AFI
During the Depression, while awaiting execution for the murder of an acquaintance, Robert Syverton recalls the circumstances of the crime. Wandering on an amusement pier beside the Pacific Ocean, he recalls when, as a child, he witnessed the destruction of a favourite horse. Robert is then attracted to a dance marathon about to begin in the dilapidated Aragon Ballroom. As he watches, a contestant is disqualified because of an ominous cough. Pressed by the man's aggressive partner, cynical Gloria Beatty, host Rocky recruits Robert as a substitute. Among the throngs competing for the prize are a middle-aged sailor suffering from heart trouble; aspirant actress Alice and her partner, Joel; an impoverished farm worker, James, and his pregnant wife, Ruby; and other destitute couples. As the marathon continues the weaker pairs are quickly eliminated, while the vulnerabilities of the stronger contestants are observed and exploited by the master of ceremonies. The theft of Alice's alternate gown stimulates mutual suspicion. After observing Alice and Robert together, Gloria takes Joel as her partner. Joel, however, receives a job offer and quits the role. Gloria's next partner is the sailor. To rekindle the spectators' enthusiasm Rocky stages a series of derbies in which the exhausted contestants, clad in track suits, must circle the floor. In these races the last three couples are eliminated. As Gloria and the sailor participate, her partner has a heart attack. Undeterred, she lifts the man to her back and crosses the finish line. Horrified, Alice sequesters herself in the shower, where she suffers a mental breakdown. Robert and Gloria are again partners. Inspired, Rocky suggests that they marry during the marathon. When Gloria refuses, the host reveals the contest's fraudulent nature. From the prize will be deducted numerous expenses, leaving the winner with nothing. Rocky boasts that he stole Alice's dress to excite spectator interest and to stimulate the rivalrous instincts of the contestants. Disgusted with this duplicity, the couple departs. Outside Gloria attempts to shoot herself, but she cannot pull the trigger. When she requests his help Robert obliges. Questioned by the police as to the motive for the murder, Robert can only say, "They shoot horses, don't they?" Meanwhile, the marathon continues.