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In Chicago's "black belt," where nearly half a million African Americans are crowded in, Hannah Thomas lives in a small kitchenette with three children, Vera, Buddy and her oldest, twenty-five-year-old Bigger, having left the South twelve years earlier following the lynching of her husband. When a rat, whom the family has nicknamed "old man Dalton," after their landlord, scampers across the floor, Bigger kills it. After a relief agency worker offers Bigger a job as a chauffeur for the Dalton family, Bigger, who is somewhat reluctant to take the job, goes to see his girl friend, Bessie Mears, a waitress in a South Side club. Bessie is excited that the owner of the club, Ernie, is going to give her a chance to sing the following evening. Bigger warns Ernie not to pursue her, then plans a robbery with some cohorts. When Ernie interrupts them and threatens to call the police, Bigger breaks his phone. The robbery does not come off, so Bigger goes with his friend Panama to the all-night movies. He decides to take the Dalton job, and despite Bigger's police record, Henry Dalton gives him the job, which includes a room in the tower of his large house. Bigger takes Bessie for a drive in the Dalton car, and when she expresses suspicion of his interest in Dalton's daughter Mary, he says he would not swap Bessie for all the blondes in Chicago. When he picks up Mary later that night, supposedly to take her to the university library, she has him pick up her friend, Jan Erlone, a labor radical. They insist on going to Ernie's club and invite Bigger to sit with them, and Bessie becomes upset when she sees Bigger with Mary. Mary and Jan make patronizing remarks about blacks, and Mary mollifies Bessie's jealousy by giving her an orchid. When Bigger drives Mary and Jan home at two in the morning, they are very drunk. As Bigger leaves Jan off, Jan gives him some radical books to read. At the Dalton home, Mary asks Bigger to carry her to her bedroom, and he nervously puts her to bed. When he hears her blind mother come in, his fear of being found with Mary prompts him to put a pillow over her face to stifle her sounds. After her mother leaves, Bigger tries to awaken Mary, but is shocked to find that he has killed her. He then carries her body to the furnace in the cellar. The next morning, when Bigger is questioned about Mary's disappearance, he says that Jan carried her in. Dalton calls Britten, a racist police detective, who finds Jan's books in Bigger's room and surmises that labor radicals have planted Bigger in the house. Britten manhandles Bigger during an interrogation, but Dalton stops him and vouches for Bigger. Britten then interrogates Jan and arrests him after he lies. Bigger returns home, and as he sees his mother scrubbing floors, he questions the way they live, compared to the way the Daltons live. He then finds Bessie and tells her of his plan to get $10,000 ransom money by saying that they have kidnapped Mary. Although Bessie is uneasy with the idea, she agrees to help. After Bigger leaves a ransom note, Dalton, believing that Jan and the radicals are behind the kidnapping, tells reporters who have gathered at the house that he has asked that Jan be released from jail and that he is paying the ransom. Jan refuses to leave jail, however, and plans to sue Dalton for false arrest. Ralph Farley, one of the reporters, suggests to Bigger, as the furnace begins to smoke, that maybe Mary was murdered and the perpetrator has burned her body in the furnace. Although Farley and the other reporters are joking, when they find a human bone and Mary's ring and earring in ashes that the gardener shovels out of the furnace, Bigger runs from the house, and the reporters assume that he assaulted and murdered Mary. As the police search for Bigger, he and Bessie race to an abandoned building where the ransom money was to be left. Bigger confesses killing Mary to Bessie, but he explains that he tried to smother her cries when Mrs. Dalton came in because he had heard all his life of black men being killed for being with white girls. Bessie suggests that he give himself up, but he refuses to listen and pushes her away. He then sends her to the drugstore across the street to get a bottle of whisky. While at the drugstore, Bessie hears a radio bulletin about a $10,000 reward for Bigger, who, they say, raped and beheaded Mary. Snippy, who hangs out at Ernie's, passes by the drugstore and after hearing about the reward, sees Bessie go to the apartment building. He stops a police car and tells where they are hiding. When the police bust in, Bigger climbs to a roof and shoots at them, then climbs up a water tank and continues firing. The police knock him down with water from a fire hose and he is captured. The Thomases visit Bigger in jail and Hannah asks her son to pray. Jan confesses that when he first learned that Bigger killed Mary, he wanted to kill him, like the mob that has gathered outside the jail, but he realized that would not solve anything. Meanwhile, Farley, with help from Panama, finds Bessie's body in an elevator shaft. Bigger admits that he killed Bessie and tells his lawyer Max about a dream he had while Bessie went to buy the whisky, in which she betrayed him. When he woke up and saw Snippy looking at the building, he thought she really had betrayed him and threw her down the elevator shaft. Farley relates that Snippy said Bessie never even suspected that he had located them. Bigger says he hopes what happened to him does not happen to another black boy and that he is thankful to have gotten to know Max. He asks Max to tell Jan hello as he prepares himself for death in the electric chair.