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The New York City Hornets and Dukes youth gangs confront each other in the portside warehouse district for a rumble. The Dukes flee after a brutal beating, and the Hornets take the one remaining Dukes member to an alley in their own neighborhood. The boy is beaten further until Lenny Daniels, one of the gang members, threatens him with a zip gun before letting him go. Later, the Hornets' leader, Frankie Dane, vows revenge against his neighbor, McAllister, who witnessed the fight and informed a policeman, resulting in Lenny's arrest. Already hardened at eighteen years old, Frankie rejects his mother's affection and social worker Ben Wagner's earnest attempts to reform him. The next morning, Frankie confronts McAllister on the stoop and when McAllister insults him, Frankie threateningly grabs McAllister by the collar. McAllister slaps him and walks away, leaving Frankie infuriated. That night on the fire escape outside his apartment, Frankie informs his most trusted comrades, Lou Macklin and Angelo "Baby" Gioia, a fifteen-year-old boy whose father runs the local soda fountain, that he plans to murder McAllister. Although Baby hesitates to expand their criminal activities to murder, he goes along with the plan. Frankie's ten-year-old brother Richie, who innocently reveres Frankie, opens the window and overhears their plot to commit murder. After the boys leave, Mrs. Dane comes home from her job as a waitress, and complains because Frankie refuses to work to help support the family. However, Frankie resents his mother, who was abandoned by Frankie's abusive father. Before leaving the apartment, Frankie threatens to hit Richie if he ever again eavesdrops. When Frankie announces his murder plans to the rest of the gang later that night, they refuse to go along with him, and only Lou and Baby remain loyal. Frankie is further disturbed by the news that Lenny has been sentenced to one year in prison, and when he tries to talk to Baby in the soda shop, Mr. Gioia throws him out. Gioia then slaps his son and warns him to stay away from Frankie. Ben, who saw the exchange, admonishes Gioia for striking Baby, and suggests that the angry teenagers require patience and understanding rather than further violence. Later, Baby's sister Maria, who has a crush on Frankie, apologizes to him for her father's behavior, but Frankie is uninterested in her. Despite Lou's protests, Frankie decides to kill McAllister the following night in the alley between his apartment building and the soda shop. The next night, Ben encounters Richie, who anxiously reveals Frankie's intent to commit murder. Ben visits Frankie in the apartment for a heart-to-heart talk, but fails to convince Frankie that his life could improve. Before Baby leaves the soda shop that night, his father beseeches him to drop out of the gang and have compassion for his mother, who is sick with worry. However, Baby resists his father's entreaties and meets with Frankie and Lou in the alley. They finalize their plan to sneak out of their homes and meet there at 1:30 in the morning, when McAllister will pass by on his way home from bowling. They are about to leave when a drunk comes down the street, and Frankie insists on a trial run. As part of the plan, Baby lies on the edge of the alley and pretends to sob to attract attention. When the drunk comes over to investigate, Lou grabs and holds the man, while Frankie draws his switchblade. Frankie lets the terrified man go without harm, but Richie witnesses the scene. Frankie grabs his brother and threatens to cut him if Richie tells anyone. Disturbed by the violence, Baby tells Frankie he is having second thoughts. However, Frankie assures him that rather than kill McAllister, he now plans only to wound him. Later, Mrs. Dane passes Ben's window at the settlement house and he tries to talk to her about Frankie, but she is too exhausted. Upon returning home, Mrs. Dane finds Richie sobbing and terrified of Frankie. When she confronts Frankie, he shouts at her, and she responds by slapping him. Frankie, who hates to be touched, retreats to the fire escape, which he considers to be his sole refuge. Soon after, Ben climbs up to talk to him one more time. Ben explains that he understands Frankie's anger comes from years of abuse and neglect, but tells the young man he is not alone, and urges him to use his energy for good, rather than cultivating hatred. Frankie refuses to acknowledge Ben, and wordlessly goes back inside. At 1:30 in the morning, Frankie, Lou and Baby meet at the alley and capture McAllister as planned. However, Richie appears unexpectedly and shoves his knife-wielding brother aside. Enraged, Frankie holds the knife to Richie's throat, and insists that everyone leave, including McAllister. Frankie is left alone with Richie, who tells his brother he loves him. Ben arrives in time to see Frankie withdraw the knife and embrace his brother. After Frankie sends Richie home, Ben accompanies Frankie out of the alley. Down the street, they see McAllister talking to a policeman. Frankie almost flees, but instead accepts Ben's arm around his shoulders. Together, they walk toward the policeman.