Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a cynical newspaper columnist in San Francisco, handling women's advice -- by chance one day, the paper's city editor assigns her to cover the woman's angle on the arrival of a pair of L.A. police detectives, Capt. Manny Alidos (Royal Dano) and Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), on the hunt for a murder suspect known to be hiding somewhere in the city. They're both pretty button-down types and seem like fish-out-of-water in the more easy-going Frisco, and Kathy quickly clashes with them both, especially when her column appealing to the missing suspect as a woman yields serious dual results -- not only does Kathy boost her profile and readership, but the missing suspect makes contact and is ultimately brought in; in the process, Kathy goes from journalistic back-bencher to media star. That would be the end of the issue, except that Kathy and Bill have become attracted to each other amid their clashes, parries, and thrusts, and decide to get married -- she spurns the offer of a job in New York to move to Los Angeles and settle down to the life of a wife and homemaker. But that proves impossible -- Kathy quickly chafes at what she regards as the empty vacuous chatter of her fellow detective wives' lives and social interactions, and also her place in their pecking order as determined by their husbands' ranks and assignments (and Bill just doesn't rate high enough). Her own life suddenly cut off from career and ambition, and an ability to act on either, she becomes fixated on Bill's career and advancing it and him as a substitute. She contrives to cross paths socially with Alice Pope (Fay Wray), the wife of Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), who is both the head of an elite detective unit and the top man in her husband's division, and is soon not only getting Bill invited to parties with Pope and the police commissioner, but also cutting her husband's boss Manny Alidos and his wife Sara (Virginia Grey), to whom she's taken a special dislike, out of those same events.
It's not quite enough, however, and Kathy starts socializing on her own with Tony Pope, on Bill's behalf, and the two soon have their own relationship. Bill is still too much of a nice guy, and not careerist enough or assertive enough -- until she feigns distress at receiving poison-pen letters accusing her of having an affair with Pope, and blames Manny and Sara. This drives Bill to confront and assault Alidos, leading to a hearing in Pope's office where the chief of the division -- now very much beholden to Bill for Kathy's sake -- comes down on Bill's side. When the smoke clears, Manny is bounced back into uniform and Bill is made acting captain and put in charge of the homicide unit that Alidos formerly headed. Bill is on his way, and so is Kathy and Pope's relationship. But Pope proves to be a distressingly honorable and loyal man -- when his wife's health takes a turn for the worse, he decides to put in for retirement, and Kathy wants him to recommend Bill as his replacement. He considers it but decides that regardless of what he's done outside of his marriage, the department is too important to compromise the detective division, and that Bill just doesn't have what it takes to head it. Kathy is too deep in her strategy to back off, and also feels betrayed by Pope; now pushed over the edge, she contrives to threaten him with a gun, and is prepared to make good on her threat. Ironically enough, Bill may get his shot yet at heading the division, as he's head of homicide and takes personal charge of the biggest case the department has seen in years -- bringing in Tony Pope's killer. The only question is if and how he can put together the clues and pieces of the puzzle leading back to Kathy.