powered by AFI
Destitute Dora Garbin, who can no longer earn a living even as a prostitute, jumps off a bridge, and is dismayed to be rescued from the water by a passerby. She stumbles home, where a fortune-teller outside her apartment predicts that she will live a long life and find love. Before she enters the apartment, she overhears two women discussing the dawn hanging of murderer Joe Cardos. Joe has refused any legal representation, last rites or a visit by his sister Clara, who nevertheless waits in the warden's office. At the jail, the warden and the guard agree that most men break down the night before their execution, but Joe remains gruff and abusive to the prison staff. By midnight, however, Joe calls to the warden that he has changed his mind and now wants, as his last wish, a girl with whom to spend the night. By law, the warden must grant the wish, and so sends two detectives to find a woman. They visit the local brothels and dance houses, but no one will risk spending time with a murderer. Just as they are about to give up, one woman remembers that Dora is desperate for money and will probably comply. The detectives find her, still wet and despondent, in her apartment, where she has just received an eviction notice. Realizing that the $200 fee will pay for a decent funeral, Dora accepts the job and dons her old dance-hall gown. When they arrive at the jail, Joe reacts with disdain to the bedraggled, sad Dora, but requisitions her some soup to eat. With only five hours left before his execution, she offers to leave, but he brusquely orders her to stay. Joe asks Dora why she is not afraid of him, and in response she begs him to kill her. Disgusted, he insults her, but she remains implacable. Later, they eat together, and although Joe sneers when Dora informs him that she reads poetry, he listens quietly as she reads a poem aloud. Although it sustains her, she explains, she needs someone with whom to share its beauty. Joe states that Dora needs to smile, and she tells him that she has never smiled, and this gloominess has cost her friends, lovers and jobs. Joe leaves to use the rest room, and when he returns, Dora has straightened her hair, removed her coat and applied lipstick, and Joe is stunned by her prettiness. She urges him to dance, and after he spits at the offer, she deduces that his toughness is only a mask against fear. The more she analyzes and pities him, the more furious Joe grows, but under her ministrations, he finally admits that he believes his sentence to be unfair. He describes the events that led up to his arrest: Joe's best friend, charismatic Paolo, sets him up for jail sentences every time one of their schemes goes awry. One day, Paolo introduces Joe to Annie, and Joe falls deeply in love with her. When she and Paolo urge Joe to pull off a dangerous robbery, he complies, only to be caught. In jail, he discovers that Paolo and Annie have spurned him and are lovers. In a rage, Joe breaks out and strangles them both. He finishes his story by declaring to Dora that he has never once cried, not even when his mother died or his father beat him. Touched, Dora urges Joe to cry, revealing that she will cry when she leaves, because she wishes she had met him years earlier. Joe shouts at her, but she continues to push him to cry, and after he grows so incensed that he slaps her, he breaks down and sobs in her lap. When he looks up, she is smiling, and they embrace. Later, he describes a dream in which the gallows break, an occurrence which would by law grant him a reprieve, and prison bells ring to announce his survival. Now gentle and loving, Joe informs Dora that, with her love, he will not be afraid to die. They dance, but are interrupted by the warden and priest. Joe begs the priest to marry him and Dora, and although it is against church rules, the priest finally agrees. Clara enters the cell to act as a witness, and Joe kisses her forehead. The priest offers Joe forgiveness, and then marries the couple, but immediately after, the guards lead Joe to the gallows. Dora and Clara kneel at the nearby altar, and as they pray for a miracle, Dora hears the prison bells ring.