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Riding a freight car toward Los Angeles, drifter Mike Mason is accosted by a railroad employee, who threatens him with a crowbar. Mike throws a punch to avoid being hit, then escapes into the Nevada desert. Seeing a car off the side of the road, Mike approaches it to hitch a ride, but finds the driver dead and a woman's monogrammed sweater hanging from the door. After changing clothes with the man, Mike drives onto the highway, but is soon stopped by two motorcycle policemen, who look at the name on the license Mike shows them, and ask him to accompany them to town. Mike remains calm, even when he is brought to the Minden courthouse and photographed shaking hands with Langlie, the mayor. Mike soon deduces that Langlie believes he is Deverman, a new chief of police who has been hired for three months, sight unseen, to clean up the town. George Caddell, who has been acting chief since the former one died in a mysterious traffic accident, is antagonistic toward Mike, but agrees to show him around. Later, at the Minden jail, Mike sees Paula Warren, a transient being held for not paying her hotel bill. Mike surprises Caddell and jailer Sam by ordering her to be released and sent out of town. Mike then escorts Paula to her hotel and coerces the manager to drop the charges against her. In her room, Mike gives Paula money for two tickets for the midnight plane to Los Angeles, promising to meet her at the airport. That night, Mike goes into a tobacco shop just as two hoods who work for local gangster Joe Emmanuel strong-arm shop owner Miltie into paying protection money. Miltie tells Mike that all of the local citizens are willing to fight Emmanuel but always have been let down by the police. After Mike dismisses Miltie, he walks outside, where Caddell tells him that the body of a drifter named Mike Mason has been found in the desert. One of the other policeman postulates that the death is tied to Emmanuel and suggests that "Deverman" pay a visit to Emmanuel's country club outside town. Resigned that he will not make the flight to Los Angeles, Mike goes to the country club the next day. There he is surprised to see Paula auditioning to be the club's singer, but they do not acknowledge each other. Inside Emmanuel's office, Mike, who assumes that Emmanuel knows he is an imposter, says that he "wants out" and could be instrumental in helping his man inside the police to become the next chief. He also says that he is afraid that his real identity will be discovered and he will be convicted circumstantially of Deverman's murder. When Mike starts to leave the club, Paula asks him for a ride into town. In the car, when Mike asks why Paula did not use her plane ticket, she says she does not know why and says that Mike still has "her marker." She later invites him into her room, where Mike warns her about Emmanuel and asks for her help to stop him. While she is in the shower, Mike notices a monogrammed sweater hanging on a chair, identical to the one at Deverman's car. He then barges into the shower, kisses Paula and says he now knows what it's like to kiss Judas. She swears she had nothing to do with Deverman's murder and deliberately left the sweater out so that Mike would see it. After her shower, Paula reveals that a lawyer came to see her in jail, then hired her to convince an incoming motorist not to go into town. When they were off the road in his car, a hired killer named Frankie Urbano rushed toward them and shot Deverman to death, then dragged her out of the car. She warns Mike that he will be killed, too. To check her story, Mike asks Sam if Paula was ever let out of her cell, and he admits that he was told to let her leave for a doctor's appointment. Mike tells Sam that he has to find out who the honest cops are, and Sam answers by saying Art Joslin is the only policeman who drives an old car. Just then Mike is summoned to Langlie's office, where he sees Andrews, the railroad employee who accosted him and has seen his photograph with Langlie in the newspaper. Langlie is about to have Mike arrested for murder, but offers him a deal to avoid the electric chair if he names the man who hired him to kill Deverman. Insisting that he did not kill Deverman and therefore cannot accept the deal, Mike suggests that they allow him more time to clean up the town by getting Emmanuel, saying there is no way he could leave town. He also suggests that only Joslin be in charge of handling the police. Joslin reluctantly agrees but warns Mike that, either way, he could wind up dead. Langlie, Joslin and the office agree to the deal and vow to keep it a secret among themselves. Later, Emmanuel calls Caddell and tells him he wants "Deverman" out immediately. Caddell then confronts Mike as an imposter and wants to arrest him, but Joslin and the officers loyal to him refuse. Soon Joslin and his men start cleaning up the various rackets around town, with Mike's help. After one raid, Mike drives back to town alone and is almost forced off the road by Caddell, who tries to ram his car. Mike swerves in time, but Caddell is killed when his car crashes over a cliff. Later, a shaken Mike goes to see Paula, who is worried and pleads with him to leave town. At the club that night, Paula avoids Emmanuel's advances, pretending that she only is after a permanent commitment. Just then, one of Emmanuel's cohorts tells him that Urbano will be on the incoming midnight train. After Paula leaves the office, the cohort informs Emmanuel that Paula is the woman who set up Deverman. Not hearing this, Paula sneaks out to call Mike from a phone booth, telling him that Urbano is arriving at midnight. Mike warns her to be careful and meet him on the road. When he tells Joslin about the call, though, Joslin speculates that it may be a setup and Urbano may already be in town. Mike is sure that Paula is in danger, though, and goes to meet her. While she is waiting, Urbano grabs her. When Mike arrives at the meeting place and does not see Paula, he searches the woods, where Urbano takes a shot at him. Mike falls to the ground, apparently dead, but after Urbano reports to Emmanuel, using the same telephone booth as Paula, Mike grabs him and ties him up. Mike then goes to the club, where Paula is being kept prisoner by Emmanuel. When Emmanuel's back is turned, she tries to overpower him, but he knocks her out. As Mike makes his way up the stairs, Emmanuel calls Urbano at the phone booth. Although Urbano is still tied up, he knocks the receiver off the hook and screams "Mason isn't dead." Emmanuel hears this just as the door to his office opens and Paula screams a warning to Mike. During a scuffle in the darkened room, Emmanuel hears police sirens approaching, leans back and falls through the window to his death. Although Mike may still face charges for impersonating Deverman, Joslin assures him that he knows a friendly judge, and Mike and Paula walk off together, arm-in-arm.