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Temple Drake, the daughter of a judge in a Southern city, refuses to marry steady, reliable lawyer Stephen Benbow, whom she loves, because she has a wild streak, which has led to her reputation as a woman who will tease men, but will not sleep with them. The night of a town dance, Temple again turns down Stephen's proposal and goes out for a ride with one of her suitors, Toddy Gowan, who has been drinking. Their car crashes near a delapidated plantation mansion that is being used as a speakeasy by bootlegger Lee Goodwin. A menacing bootlegger who is called Trigger because he is loose with his gun, forces the couple into the house in the middle of a thunderstorm. Toddy, still terribly drunk and suffering from a head wound, makes an attempt to defend Temple against a lewd bootlegger, but he knocks Toddy out and Lee defends her. She then tries to escape, but Trigger insists she stay in the house. Lee's lower class wife, Ruby Lemarr, who lives in the house with her baby, suggests Temple sleep in the barn, where she will be safe. Tommy, a young half-wit, stands guard at the barn door with his rifle to protect Temple, but at dawn, when the men return from their liquor run, Trigger shoots Tommy dead and rapes Temple in the hay. Trigger then takes Temple to a house of ill-repute in the city run by a woman named Reba, and makes Temple his moll. Toddy, after waking to find himself in a Dixon warehouse the night following the storm, skips town. The newspapers, meanwhile, report that Temple is visiting relatives in Pennsylvania. Lee is arrested for Tommy's murder and Stephen is appointed as his lawyer, but Lee refuses to indict Trigger after nearly being killed by a bullet in his cell. Ruby mentions the name Trigger and tells Stephen to look for him at Reba's place. When Stephen enters Trigger's room, he finds Temple dressed in a negligee and nearly attacks Trigger, but Temple, sure Trigger is about to shoot Stephen, tells him that she is with Trigger of her own accord. Believing the lie, Stephen serves Trigger and Temple summonses for Lee's trial and leaves. Temple then tries to escape, but Trigger lunges at her and, to keep herself from being raped again, Temple shoots him dead. Temple then returns to Dixon, and when Lee's trial is almost over, she begs Stephen not to make her testify and tells him she killed Trigger. In court, against the judge's warnings not to disgrace his daughter, Stephen puts Temple on the stand, but, out of love for her, is unable to interrogate her about Trigger. Temple, however, suddenly confesses all that has happened to her, including being witness to Tommy's murder, being raped, and finally killing Trigger. She then faints, and Stephen, proud of her for aiding justice, carries her from the courtroom.