The husband of Geraldine Saunders (Kim Hunter), one of Americas foremost playwrights, drowns after slipping and hitting his head in the bath. It seems like an accident but a prop murder weapon from one of Saunders plays catches the attention of Sgt. Anderson (Ben Gazzara) as does her flirtatious-but-troubled daughters (Joey Heatherton) attempt to charm him into ending the investigation. When Anderson learns that Saunders flew home unexpectedly to confront her husbands womanizing, he charges the famous playwright with second-degree murder. John Egan (Chuck Connors), Geraldines lawyer and friend, knows she didnt murder her husband. But her guilt about her failed homelife is making her hide the true killer-even it means spending the rest of her life in prison for a crime she didnt commit.
Geraldine Saunders (Kim Hunter), one of Americas foremost playwrights, is summoned out of a live television interview because her husband has had a serious accident. Mark Saunders apparently slipped and fell in the tub, hit his head, and drowned. But Sgt. Anderson (Ben Gazzara) is concerned that the blow to Mark Saunders head could have been inflicted by a human, particularly since he cannot find a satisfactory explanation why slipped Saunders slipped and fell in the first place.
John Egan (Chuck Connors), Geraldine Saunders attorney, is at her mansion, consoling her. Saunders says her daughter, Edith Hayes (Joey Heatherton), resents her because she hasnt "given her an easy life."
Egan says that there are people who would disagree with that. "A beautiful home. Finest schools. And a very talented and successful mother." Saunders: Unfortunately, my talent isnt maternal. Edith would tell you that.
Edith, who is twenty-one, has never forgiven her mother for divorcing her father, Chet Hayes. Saunders: "I demoted him from a father to a business associate. Edith cant quite accept that." Ediths relationship with her late stepfather, Mark Saunders, was "polite, even respectful." But she loves her biological father very much and has never been able to accept that her mother divorced him.
Chet Hayes drops in briefly and Edith, thrilled, runs to greet him.
"Oh, Daddy! Daddy! Daddy, why didnt you tell me you were coming?"
He admonishes her to "button your blouse, dear. Youre too young for Camille and too old for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."
Sgt. Anderson returns to question Geraldine Saunders further. Apparently, her late husband had a heart condition that he never discussed with her. Anderson wants to know how a man can hide a heart condition from a woman with whom hes sharing a "marital relationship." Saunders says that her late husband never discussed his business or his health. Anderson notices a shelf filled with Geraldines plays and reveals that he is familiar with them. Among the souvenirs mounted on her wall, he recognizes a cane that had been used in one of her plays two years earlier. Shes surprised at his memory. Anderson asks if he may borrow the cane and promises to bring it back.
Anderson goes to interview her daughter, Edith. He hands the cane to his partner, gripping it with a handkerchief to prevent smudging any fingerprints. During their conversation, Edith comes across as a wise-cracking, flirtatious little rich girl (she repeatedly calls Anderson "Mr. Policeman") who got everything from mommy and daddy except love. Explaining her relationship with her mother, Edith says that Saunders has spent a total of eight months at home in the last five years and even that was in bits and pieces.
Later, Geraldine Saunders asks her daughter why Anderson would borrow that cane, "unless he thinks it was used as a weapon." Edith accuses her of letting her theatrical imagination run wild. In a bitter mother-daughter conversation, she asks her mother why she even bothered to return home. Why didnt she just stay in New York with her play? Saunders says it was because her late husband needed her. Edith: He didnt need you at all.
Geraldine: You mean the other women. Yes, I knew about them.
Edith: Can you blame him? You spent all your love on your made-up characters. You had two husbands and had no time for either one of them. And no time for your daughter, either.
Geraldine: Baby, Edith, please. I need you.
Edith: How does it feel, mother? How does it feel to really need someone?
Edith shows up at Sgt. Andersons apartment, late at night. She found his address in the phone directory. Classical music is playing. She asks for a vodka ("I am twenty-one."). She wants to know why hes questioning so many people and why hes dragging out the investigation. Edith: Isnt this a long investigation for an accident? Why not let Mark rest peacefully? He had a hard enough time.
Anderson: I dont think itll disturb him.
Edith: And Im concerned about my mother.
When she accuses Anderson of not answering her questions, he tells her that, like the cop in the movie, hell ask the questions. She gets up to pour herself another drink. Edith: Tchaikovsky?
Anderson: Thats right. You like it? Its not supposed to be fashionable these days but I play it when no one is supposed to be watching.
Edith: So do I.
Anderson: "None but the Lonely Heart." A little bit like you. He takes the glass away from her.
Edith: It shows doesnt it?
Anderson: In your eyes. Edith: What else do you see in my eyes, oh, great detective?
Anderson: I see a very, pretty, very sweet young girl, who maybe grew up maybe a little too fast, who would like to be her mother, who says she hated her stepfather but doesnt act like it and seems confused and frightened by whats happening to her.
Edith (pressing closer): Id like you for my friend, Nick.
Anderson: Im your friend.
Edith: I better go. Youre tired.
She asks if hes going to tell her mother about her stepfathers women friends.
Anderson: Well, I havent found them all yet.
Edith: Thats really why I came. I wanted to see if I could talk you out of telling her. A widow doesnt like being told about her late husbands adventures.
As soon as she leaves, Anderson phones his partner to meet him at Saunders' office.
Anderson: Of course, this late at night.
At Saunders' office, his former partner, Jack Felton (Denver Pyle) is working late. Felton: I never expected Mark to go out that wayHe was a two-fisted guy. The kind of guy youd expect to go out in a construction accident, an automobile, an airplane. Not slipping in the bath tub.
In Saunders' desk, Anderson finds receipts for gifts to various women. He presses Felton for the truth about the Saunders marital relationship. The police have a couple of less-than-friendly letters between Saunders and his wife.
Anderson: How long has this trouble between Mark and Geraldine been going on?
Felton: Long time. Thats why the other women.His need for success is what took him right to the top. His need for love, Geraldine didnt have time for that. How can I blame her? She has her own work. You know what I think? I think people like that shouldnt get married.
Anderson questions Geraldine Saunders first husband, Chet Hayes, about why she left her play in New York to return home to her husband, just before his accident. Anderson: Isnt that unusual?
Hayes: She had a life.
Anderson: I though her plays were her life. Hayes: She heard there were other women in Marks life. She came back to see what she could do about it. Anderson (to his partner): Dan, old boy, I think we got what we came for.
The D.A. gets the grand jury to indict Geraldine Saunders for second-degree murder. Egan reads the incriminating letters between Geraldine and her late husband in Deputy D.A. Jerry Millers (John Larch) office and tries unsuccessfully to attack their evidentiary value.
Egan tells Geraldine that the prosecutors case will be very convincing and disputes her belief that it was an accident. Hes convinced that her husbands death was not an accident and that someone was in the house with opportunity and motive. She tells Egan that she and Mark had reconciled and were happier than theyd been in a long time.
Egan: Well, I hope I can prove that.
In his opening statement, D.A. Miller tells the grand jury "we shall prove thatMrs. Saunders did, with rage and passion, commit the act of murder" on her husband "by striking a blow on the side of the head and causing him to take in sufficient water to cause death by drowning and/or asphyxiationand we shall prove her guilty of the act of murder beyond the shadow of a doubt."
Egan postpones his opening statement until the prosecution has completed its case. The prosecutor notifies the judge that most of its witnesses will be hostile.
Sgt. Anderson testifies for the prosecution that the cane he confiscated had traces of the victims blood on it and that the body fell in a manner consistent with a blow to the head. Under cross-examination, Egan asks if anyone in the Saunders house could have had access to the murder weapon and Anderson answers "yes."
The Saunders housekeeper, Brigit (Doris Lloyd), testifies that when Geraldine returned home from the East coast, she didnt wire ahead as usual. Geraldine surprised the late Mr. Saunders and popped inon him while he was dressing for a date with one of his women friends. Brigit: They started arguing right awayabout his other friends.Well, sir, his other friends were his women friends.
Mr. Saunders gave Brigit every weekend off so he could entertain his lady friends privately. She wrote about this to Mrs. Saunders. Brigit breaks down on the stand, blaming herself for a situation that came about because of her letter. Under cross, Egan asks if Mrs. Saunders loved her husband.
Brigit: Oh, yes, sir. Very much.
Geraldines ex-husband, Chet Hayes, testifies that hes produced all of Geraldines plays, even after they were divorced. Hayes: Our association in the theater was much more successful than our association in marriage. Weve been objective enough to keep our personal lives from interfering with our work. Hayes admits that at the time of Mark Saunders death, he was helping to prepare Geraldines next Broadway play in New Haven, when she received the letter from her housekeeper. She became very upset and returned home, an unusual thing for a playwright to do in the "formative stages" of a new play. Hayes quotes her as saying that she was returning home to "put an end to Marks philandering."
Under cross by Egan, Hayes admits that Geraldine did not specify how she was going to "put an end to Marks philandering," that she didnt threaten violence or murder but was hurt rather than angry, and blamed herself for the bad state of her marriage.
In chambers, the judge allows five letters written by the defendant to her late husband to be read in open court, over defense objections. Its decided that its best if Geraldine reads the letters aloud in court herself, so that they wont be "misinterpreted."
Anguished, Geraldine reads the letters, in which she basically apologizes for the fact that shell always be obsessed with her work and that their marriage will inevitably be sacrificed for the sake of her talent. She blames herself and feels great guilt and remorse for having let her husband down but she doubts that she will ever be able to change..
Conferring with Egan, Geraldine blames herself for being an "absentee wife" and the cause of her daughters bitterness and Marks loneliness. She feels that her failure as a wife makes her to blame for Marks death. Egan tells her that shell be convicted because of her attitude. Geraldine insists that it was an accident. Egan demands to know who shes trying to protect. Geraldine: Im hardly the martyr type. Do you think anyone in the world means that much to me?
Egan: Yes, I do.
Geraldine: Marks death was an accident. Do you understand? An accident.
Edith Hayes, Geraldines daughter, is called to the stand by the prosecution. She testifies that she heard Geraldine quarreling with Mark the night she returned, as he was preparing to go out on a date. She heard them quarreling the next day and the argument seemed even worse. Her mother accused Mark of infidelity. When he denied it, she became even more furious. Edith says she went horseback riding, hoping the argument would be over when she returned. It was over. The police had arrived.
Under cross, Edith testifies that Mark gave the housekeeper the weekends off to entertain his women friends but only when Geraldine, his wife, was away. She says that none of these women meant anything to Mark, that he had told her so. Egan is surprised that her stepfather would discuss his affairs with his stepdaughter. Edith: Why wouldnt he?
Egan reminds the court that two of these women had previously testified that each of them felt that she was the most important woman in Marks life.
Edith: Well, theyre liars. There was only one woman in Marks life.
Egan: Your mother.
Egan: I find that difficult to believe, Miss Hayes. What other woman could have meant more to him than his wife?
Edith: Me. Im almost twenty-two, you know. Mark and I were very much in love. He was going to ask my mother for a divorce. He had promised to tell her once she got home. That may have been why the quarrel got so violent.
At the defense table, Geraldine Saunders is shouting that these are all lies. She announces to the judge that she wants to confess to the murder of Mark Saunders.
Egan, her defense attorney, asks and gets the court to a recess for him to consult with his client. The judge instructs the jury to disregard Mrs. Saunders statement.
Egan asks his assistant to bring Edith to the conference room where hes meeting with Geraldine, his client. Geraldine says shes too distraught to meet with Edith right now.
Egan: You really didnt know about her affair with Mark, did you?
Geraldine: No, I didnt know. I didnt know.
Egan: You didnt have to make that confession, dear.
Geraldine: It was the least I could do. My baby! How could she hate me so much?
Chet Hayes burst into the room with his daughter, Edith, and says he knows what Geraldines trying to do and he wont let her do it.
Geraldine (to Edith): I would have done anything for your love, Edith. Anything.
Edith: Isnt it a little late for that now?
Egan: All right, who murdered Marks Saunders?
Edith: She did. Didnt you hear her?
Chet Hayes (shaking Edith): Thats not true and you know it.
Geraldine calls to Chet and he goes to comfort her.
Egan: Why are you so eager to incriminate your own mother?
Edith: What do you expect? All I ever wanted was her love. She never taught me how to love. Thats why its so easy to hate.
Egan: She does love you. She just proved that in a courtroom. Shes willing to go to prison for the rest of her life. That is love. And all you can do is hate. You look at her. You look and see what youve done. I said look at her! Do you think she should rot in prison for what youve done?
Edith runs from the room. Egan approachs her in the empty courtroom. Edith is sitting at the defense table.
Egan: Edith, dont you think you better tell me?
Edith: I wanted Mark. I loved him terribly. I was lonely. There was no one else. I wanted Mark but he wouldnt leave my mother for me. He laughed at me. He called me a child. A baby. I just wanted him to love me the way he loved my mother. All he did was laugh at me. Sgt. Anderson (Gazzara) appears at the courtrooms entrance, looking grave. Egan sees him.
Edith: Hes not laughing anymore. I made sure of that. Egan: Nobodys laughing.
The camera pulls back on Edith and Egan.
Fade to credits.