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A train en route to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary carries a prison car filled with men planning and hoping for escape, while police do all they can to contain them. When the train stops at Varneyville, future Alcatraz inmate Tommy Calligan is loaded onto the prison car, where he is introduced to fellow prisoners including Doug Forbes and Bart Kanin, a personal enemy of Tommy's. After Tommy acquaints himself with the men in the car, he relates to Forbes the story of how he came to loathe Kanin: Tommy is out on parole after doing time for petty thefts. Wanting a fresh start with life, he gets a job as a mechanic. One day at the shop, Tommy's old girl friend, Virginia Marley, shows up with Kanin. Using her charm on Tommy, Virginia lures him into Kanin's underworld business as a runner, gives him a gun for his protection and instructs him to work under Kanin's man, Marty Mason. The runs go well until one day when the police, who have suspected Tommy, move to arrest him. Tommy flees in a panic until Mason shoots the pursuing officer, killing him. Fearing that the police will blame him for the killing, Tommy tosses his gun into a trash can and continues to run. He is soon caught, and in the absence of any of Kanin's men to prove his innocence, Tommy is found guilty of the officer's murder. After being given a life sentence, Tommy fosters a hatred for Kanin that grows with time. Back on the train, Virginia is on board, carrying on a conversation with Beatrice, a young woman, who also boarded the train at Varneyville and is certain that young men like Tommy are not inherently evil, but only need to be given a chance. After convincing Beatrice to plead with Grady, one of the guards, to talk to Tommy, Virginia uses the moment to plant a key into the pocket of the preoccupied officer. Grady refuses to let Beatrice talk with Tommy, then returns to the prison car to check on the prisoners. There a prisoner, who is a pickpocket, removes the key to give to Kanin. After using the key to remove chains from hands and feet, Kanin and a few other prisoners initiate a breakout after Forbes shuts off the lights in the car. Two officers are then taken hostage and a U.S. Marshal is ordered to stop the train so the men can escape. Choosing to lose officers rather than stop the train, the marshal finally has the train stopped, but warns prisoners against escaping, promising a fair trail to those who stay aboard the car. Recognizing that Tommy still has a small chance to reclaim his innocence, a sympathetic Forbes knocks him unconscious so Tommy cannot escape. Forbes then leaves the train, using a guard as a shield, but is shot and killed by the marshal. When Tommy comes to, he is nursed to health by Beatrice as the marshal relates that Tommy will be released in light of the recent arrest of Mason.