Rusty Regan (David Savile), former IRA- fighter and bootlegger, was in love with a Mona Grant (Diana Quick). Mona married Eddie Mars (Oliver Reed) instead, casino owner and racketeer, so Rusty married Charlotte Sternwood (Sarah Miles).
Spoiled and psychic fragile Camilla Sternwood (Candy Clark), sister to Charlotte, shoots Rusty Regan who denied her advances. With help of Eddie Mars, Charlotte disposes of the body and Eddie nourishes hopes of a healthy bite in the sisters' heritage, once old man General Sternwood (James Stewart) dies. The General, of poor health, was very fond of his son- in- law Rusty.
To avoid Charlotte or Eddie beeing suspected by the police, they spread rumour that Rusty left with Eddie Mars' wife.
General Sternwood gets blackmailed by A. G. Geiger (John Justin) on account of Camilla. Some time earlier, Sternwood paid 5'000.- $ to Joe Brody (Edward Fox), also on account of Camilla. Sternwood hires Philip Marlowe (Robert Mitchum) to get rid of the problem.
The blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, is bisexuell and, with the fassade of an antique books store, involved in smut books and blackmailing.
Owen Taylor (Martin Potter), chauffeur to the Sternwoods with a criminal record, wants to call Geiger on his machinations with Camilla, witnesses Geiger's taking nude photos of her drugged and shoots him. Takes the plate holder of the camera with him.
Joe Brody, friend to Agnes Lozelle (Joan Collins), the front woman in Geiger's bookstore, was on his way to Geiger. Hears Taylor's shots, follows him and knocks him out. He takes the plate holder from him. Taylor awakenes, knocks out Brody and escapes without plate holder.
Later Taylor is found killed in a Sternwood car in the harbour. According to the trivia in the Bogart/ Bacall- Version, not even Chandler knew who killed him...
Karl Lundgren (Simon Fisher- Turner), Geiger's lover from his bookstore, comes to the appartment while Marlowe took the drugged Camilla to the Sternwood place. He hides the body to clear out his personal belongings. Marlowe misses the body when he returns and meets Eddie at Geiger's. Later, Lundgren, probably bitten by remorse, comes back, takes Geiger's body out of his hiding place and lays him out in state in his bed.
Brody snaps the inventory of Geiger's smut library to run his own business. Marlowe gets at him and Agnes. Camilla appears and tries to shoot Brody; but Marlowe takes her gun. Brody is shot by Lundgren who thinks Brody shot Geiger. Lundgren is later turned over to the police by Marlowe.
Earlier, Agnes and Brody saw Mona and Lash Canino (Richard Boome), paid killer for Eddie, by chance and followed them to their hiding place. Agnes wants to sell this information to Marlowe through Harry Jones (Colin Blakely), who gets killed by Canino in the process.
Marlowe gets the information of Monas whereabouts. The place is Art Huck's garage, a hot car drop. Marlowe is done in by Huck and Canino. When these two leave, he is guarded by Mona. Marlowe is able to rouse suspicions in her about Eddie, so she lets Marlowe escape.
Marlowe thinks getting oberpowered by Huck and Canino and released by Mona was a prearranged thing.
Marlowe kills Canino in a shootout.
General Sternwood asks Marlowe to look for the whereabouts of Rusty. On his way out he runs into Camilla and gives her her gun back. She wants shooting lessons from him. Marlowe had - unknown to her - loaded the guns with blanks which saved his life: She tries to shoot him because he refused Camilla earlier as Rusty did. Camilla is not turned over to the police, Marlowe tells Charlotte to bring her in a mental hospital.