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In the early 1950s, Phenix City, Alabama is known as "Sin City, U.S.A." for its nearly 100-year history of supplying gambling and other vices to tourists and the soldiers of nearby Fort Benning, Georgia. Rhett Tanner, the head of the city's organized crime syndicate, deals viciously with any honest citizens who try to stop his "industry's" $100,000,000 per year profit. Due to the gambling syndicate's hold on the city, most of its elected officials and police officers are corrupt, and only a few brave inhabitants dare to oppose Tanner and his cohorts. Among those trying to shut Tanner down are Ed Gage, whose son Fred, an aspiring lawyer, is dating Ellie Rhodes, a blackjack dealer in Tanner's Poppy Club. Worried about the new citizens' committee organized by Gage, Hugh Bentley and Hugh Britton, Tanner visits his old friend, influential lawyer Albert L. "Pat" Patterson. Pat refuses either to accept Tanner's offer to work for him or to join the citizens' committee, as he both hates vice and despairs that it will never be stopped. Reassured that Pat will not fight him, Tanner leaves, after which Pat welcomes home his son John, a fellow lawyer who has been prosecuting war criminals in Germany, and John's wife Mary Jo and their two young children. Mary Jo is unsettled when Pat offers John a partnership in his law firm, as she does not want to live in Phenix City. Pat and John assure her that she will be safe, as long as she avoids Fourteenth Street, the main "red light district." Gage and Britton then arrive at the Patterson home to ask Pat to attend that evening's committee meeting, but Pat turns them down, although John rides with them downtown to run an errand. There, Gage, Britton and John are attacked by Tanner's thugs, led by Clem Wilson, who have been told about the meeting by Jeb Bassett, Tanner's spy in the citizens' committee. Infuriated, John pursues Clem, once his schoolmate, to the Poppy Club, and there beats him. Fred and black janitor Zeke Ward help John to escape and take him home, where John tells his father that they must attend the meeting and help to change the town. At the meeting, Pat insists that he will not participate in the vigilantism that has been the town's usual response to the criminals, and John postulates that if the good citizens of the state were rallied, they would vote in an honest attorney general, who could institute reforms. Upon John's suggestion, everyone turns to Pat, but he refuses to run for the office and states that all of his reforming efforts have been defeated. Pat's mind is changed, however, when Clem, in an effort to intimidate John, kills Zeke's young daughter and tosses her body onto the Pattersons' lawn. While Clem is escaping, he runs over a newspaper boy, and Fred, who has seen him, jumps into his car and pursues him. At the Poppy Club garage, Fred is killed by a blow to the head from Clem, who then stages a car accident so that Fred's death will not look like murder. Finally deciding to fight, Pat appears at the coroner's inquest and tries to prove that Fred was killed, but the terrified jury, spotting Tanner in the crowd, returns a finding of accidental death. Al then informs Tanner that he will be running for attorney general, and despite his advanced age and frail constitution, Al campaigns tirelessly. Citizens attending Pat's rallies are beaten by hoodlums, and Bentley's home is bombed when he makes a televised speech for Pat, but on election day, Pat wins. Tanner points out to his cohorts that Pat has not yet been sworn in, and late one night, as he walks to the office, Pat is shot to death by two of Tanner's henchmen. Ellie witnesses the murder, and Tanner's men begin to search for her. Later, at the funeral home, John attempts to appease the growing mob, which wants to lynch everyone on Fourteenth Street. Receiving a call from Ellie that she is hiding at Zeke's house, John tells Bassett that he is going to protect her, and Bassett informs Tanner. At the Ward home, John arrives to find Clem and another man beating Zeke and his wife Helen. John helps Clem to fight off the men and then searches outside for Ellie, only to find Tanner near her dead body. While Helen stops Zeke from clubbing one of his attackers to death, John viciously beats Tanner, who admits to killing Ellie and orchestrating Pat's death. Zeke prevents John from drowning Tanner, telling him that he must follow the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." John then returns to the funeral parlor, calls the state capital and demands that the militia be called out. With Phenix City under martial law, Fourteenth Street is closed down and its denizens arrested. Soon after, John is elected to replace Pat as attorney general and vows to uphold the justice his father sought.