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Axel Nordmann, a troubled young man, arrives one evening at a New York City freight train depot looking for a job. When the night watchman tells him he has to wait until the morning, Axel falls asleep in the yard, and the next morning is woken up by Tommy Tyler, a kindly black stevedore, who befriends him. When Axel asks to speak to Charles Malik, Malik pretends to recognize him and hires him, aware that Ed Favors, a mutual friend with illicit connections, has sent him. Axel joins Malik's crew as a stevedore and quickly learns that he is required to give Malik a portion of his earnings in exchange for having received the job. Malik, a racist, also demands that Axel stay away from Tommy if he wants to continue to work. When Tommy offers to help Axel find an apartment in his neighborhood, Axel at first angrily refuses, but then accepts his kindness. The next day, Tommy gives Axel his very own stevedore's hook and has him transferred to his own gang. Malik begins to taunt Axel, who has been calling himself Axel North, about his dealings with Favors, and Axel decides to be honest with Tommy by telling him his real name and that he is from Gary, Indiana. Later, at a bar, Axel tells Tommy about the tragedy that ruined his life: After the death of his much-loved brother Andy, who was killed in a car accident while Axel was driving, his father, a strict police officer, blamed Axel for killing his favorite son. One night, Axel has dinner with Tommy, his wife Lucy, and their friend, Ellen Wilson, a white social worker who, like Lucy, is well-educated and motivated by leftist political causes. The four go dancing at a Latin nightclub, and when Axel is recognized by a drunken soldier, he flees in embarrassment. Sometime later as Axel is beginning to benefit from Tommy's philosophy that he must behave like "a man ten feet tall," Malik continues to taunt Axel with oblique references to his past. Axel finally confesses to Tommy the whole story: He enlisted in the Army as a way of dignifying himself in his family's eyes, but then deserted because the sergeant criticized him unrelentingly. Tommy tells Axel that he will always stand by him, and later Ellen, with whom Axel has fallen in love, also pledges her support. At work, Axel decides finally to stand up to Malik and the two begin to fight. Tommy intervenes and when Malik makes a racist comment to him, the two longtime enemies go at it with their stevedore's hooks. Tommy is stabbed in the back and dies in Axel's arms. When the police detective arrives, all the workers deny having seen anything, and Axel, too, keeps quiet. Axel goes home and calls his parents for the first time in years and tells them that he wants to come home. Before Axel leaves for Gary, he goes to see Lucy, who insists on knowing how Tommy was killed. When Axel finally tells her haltingly that Tommy was killed in a fight, she screams at him for not going to the police and then kicks him out. Prompted by Ellen to do what is right, Axel goes back to work, has the detective called, and tells Malik that he is going to turn him in. Malik grabs his hook and the two engage in a vicious fight, which Axel finally wins. Axel then drags Tommy's murderer to the detective, as the other workers watch and follow.