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At a state prison in the 1930s, convicted murderer Richard Walters is transferred to the death house where he joins seven other prisoners: Ed Werner in cell one, Jimmy Martin in cell two, John Mears in cell three, Fred Mayor in cell five, Vince Jackson in cell six, Red Kirby in cell seven and Tom D'Amoro in cell eight. Walters is placed in cell four, next to Mears, who bitterly resents the nickname "Killer" given to him by the press and with which the guards goad him constantly. The prisoners' anxiety over Martin's execution that night is heightened by the disturbing poetry recited by the unbalanced Werner. The guards, led by Officer Drake, incite the prisoners, especially Mears, by mocking Martin's coming death. Despite the high emotions running throughout the block, when Father O'Connors arrives to pray with Martin, the prisoners fall silent. Although Martin must be pulled from his cell toward the death chamber, the guards allow him to say goodbye to each of the other men. When the chamber door sticks briefly, Martin cheers the prisoners by making a wisecrack and then walking into the chamber unaided. A day or two later, Pete Rodriguez is placed in cell two. While the prisoners restlessly pass the time in various ways, Walters laments to Mears about not hearing news from his mother regarding a request for a stay despite his execution being only five days away. When some of the other men discuss Martin's courage, Mears angrily scoffs that no one is brave when faced with death. On the day of Walters' execution, Drake delivers a telegram from a reporter requesting permission to view Walters' death. Furious, Walters refuses, only to have Drake coldly reveal that he has learned from the warden's office that Walters' stay has been denied. Later that evening, Warden Stanley F. Stone is informed that Walters has requested his final meal. Stone then sends the official copy of the death warrant to the death house principal keeper, his brother-in-law, Pat Callahan. In the cells, Walters' leg is shaved where the electrodes will be placed and Drake cruelly taunts him, revealing he will not shave his head in order to make the killing as difficult as possible. Callahan then arrives to read the death warrant and when the prisoners protest, he insists he is fulfilling the rules. Walters asks to be allowed to write his mother and girl friend and the guards purposely take their time locating pencil and paper. Walters then receives his final meal of steak and potatoes, but becomes sick after one mouthful. O'Connors visits Walters and afterward, Mears scoffs at the priest's declaration of faith and promises of an afterlife. Drake then prepares to write down Walters' letter to his mother, but when the guard grows sarcastic, Mears explodes in a fury and grabs Drake through the bars, strangling him until he passes out. Taking Drake's keys, Mears frees himself and all the other prisoners except Werner, who cowers in fear. Mears declares his intention to break out, but when Kirby, who has recently received a thirty-day stay, hesitates, Mears threatens him. Using their stools as weapons, the prisoners rush the guard room, but before they can overpower the guards, Jackson is shot and killed. Mears takes the guards' weapons, then locks the guards and O'Connors in a cell before calling Stone on a speaker phone to demand a car for his escape. To prove his determination, Mears shoots Drake and dumps his body into the courtyard for Stone to see. Stone orders the guard house men to open fire on the death house and a fierce gun battle breaks out. When an abrupt silence descends, Mears peeks out a window and, spotting guards approaching with gas bombs, opens fire, killing several. When Kirby suggests threatening to kill the remaining guards unless Stone accedes to his demands, Mears agrees, but the police continue firing relentlessly into the death house. One guard, Peddie, is killed as well as prisoners Mayor and Rodriguez. During a pause in the gunfire, Mears menaces the remaining guards and the younger Harris pleads for his life, asking Mears to take the oldest officer, O'Flaherty. Mears sends O'Flaherty into the courtyard with a message for Stone that he will kill eash hostage, starting with Stone's brother-in-law, until his demands are met. Stone steadfastly refuses Mears's ultimatum, believing if he gives in it will ruin not only his reputation but also that of the prison. When Mears calls Stone and prompts Callahan to beg for his life, Stone cuts off the speaker. Mears coldly begins reading Walters' death warrant out to Callahan before shooting him. While Stone plans to have gas grenades fired into the death house, Walters balks when Mears next threatens O'Connors. Mears tells Stone of his intention to kill the priest, but the warden refuses to listen. Walters intervenes when Mears turns on O'Connors, but while the men are fighting, Walters is shot by a burst of fire from outside. Moments later, the cells are shattered by a grenade explosion. Seriously wounded, Walters pleads with Mears not to let the police patch him up just to complete the execution and, to O'Connors' horror, Mears shoots Walters. The remaining prisoners, Kirby and D'Amoro, tell Mears they have run out of ammunition. Uncharacteristically distressed by having to kill Walters, Mears declares his need to get outside and, dropping his weapon, goes into the courtyard where he is shot to death.