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In 1924, Judd Steiner and Artie Straus, two young University of Chicago law school geniuses from socially prominent families, steal a typewriter from a campus fraternity house and then drink to the execution of the perfect crime, which they consider a true test of their superior intellect. In their jubilation, they nearly run over a drunk, and when the man yells at them, the domineering, sadistic Artie orders Judd to turn around and run him down, but Judd swerves at the last minute, allowing the drunk to jump out of the speeding car's path. The next day in class, Artie challenges his professor's conception of justice, and instead advocates the Nietzschean idea of a superman detached from all human emotions. After class, Sid Brooks, one of the poorer students who works as a reporter to pay for his education, goes to the newspaper office and is assigned to cover a story about a drowned boy found in the park. Once the medical examiner pronounces that the boy was killed by a blunt instrument, Sid matches the victim's description to that of the unsolved kidnapping of Paulie Kessler and notifies Tom Daly, the reporter covering the kidnap story. A pair of glasses were found near the body, and when Paulie's uncle states that his nephew never wore glasses, Sid realizes that they must belong to the murderer. Afterward, Sid joins his girl friend, Ruth Evans, Artie, Judd and a few other students at a nightclub, and after he reveals that a pair of glasses were found near the body, Judd discovers that his own glasses are missing. Upon returning home, Judd frantically searches for his spectacles as he and Artie blame each other for their loss. The boys then concoct an alibi in which Judd will say he dropped his glasses while bird watching in the park and that on the night of the murder, they were cruising for girls in Judd's Stutz Bearcat. The next day, the police are questioning potential witnesses at Paulie's school when Artie intrudes and volunteers his help as a former student. Lt. Johnson then inquires if there were any odd teachers at the school, and Artie relishes impugning the reputation of several of his old instructors. Later, Ruth meets Judd at a diner and is intrigued when the introverted boy invites her to go bird watching with him. Artie, meanwhile, delights in phoning in false leads about the murder and pumps Sid for news about the case. When Sid mentions that the typewriter on which the ransom note was written has been identified, Artie, who had been avoiding Judd's calls, hurries to the Steiner house, where he berates Judd for failing to dispose of the typewriter. After Artie learns that Judd has a date with Ruth to go bird watching, the diabolic Artie orders Judd to rape her, thus "exploring all the possibilities of human experience." Later, while in the park with Ruth, Judd begins ranting about beauty in evil and then tries to sexually assault her. When Ruth responds not with fear but compassion, Judd breaks down in tears of shame. Soon after, the police come to question Judd about the glasses found at the murder scene and escort him to see State's Attorney Harold Horn. After Horn informs Judd that the glasses have been identified as his because of their unusual hinges, he interrogates the boy throughout the rest of the afternoon until Judd finally recounts his alibi. Summoned to Horn's hotel suite, Artie asserts that he was at the movies alone that night, thus undercutting Judd's alibi. Artie then cleverly recants his story and admits that he was with Judd, thus convincing Horn of their veracity. Horn is about to release the boys when the Steiner's chauffeur inadvertently mentions that the Stutz was out of commission on the day of the murder. Determined to get the truth, Horn tricks Judd into confessing by claiming that Artie named him as Paulie's killer. Crazed by betrayal, Artie blurts out that Judd is the real murderer. After each of the boys accuses the other of murder, famed attorney Jonathan Wilk is hired by their families to defend them. The state's doctors have decreed that the boys are sane, thus depriving Wilk of an insanity plea. When Horn argues that the death penalty can be the only just verdict, Wilk, realizing that he has no chance of a jury acquittal, unexpectedly enters a plea of guilty with unmitigating circumstances, thus avoiding a jury trial and putting the verdict in the judge's hands. After the psychiatrists testify that Judd is paranoid and Artie schizophrenic, Wilk calls Ruth to the stand, and when Ruth voices her empathy for Judd, Judd passes out in the courtroom. In his lengthy summation, Wilk appeals to the judge's conscience and regard for human life. In an emotional plea, Wilk argues that cruelty only begets cruelty and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. After careful consideration, the judge sentences Judd and Artie to life in prison, but Artie remains bitter and unrepentant.