powered by AFI
On Chicago's seamy Southside in 1950, a group of down-and-out derelicts band together on Christmas to create a surrogate family for young Nick Romano, the offspring of a man executed for murder and a bar hostess named Nellie who salves her loneliness with alcohol. Among those hoping to spare Nick from the sordid life they have led are: Judge Bruce Mallory Sullivan, whose descent into alcoholism cost him his judgeship; Flora, a heroin-addicted blues singer; Fran, a big-hearted streetwalker; Wart, a disabled man who runs a newspaper stand; Goodbye George, a washed-up boxer; and Max, a cab driver. Years later, Nick has developed into a skilled pianist with hopes of winning a scholarship at a conservatory after graduating from high school. Nellie's dream for her son is threatened by a gang of local toughs who goad Nick into a fight by besmirching his mother and father. One day, Louie Ramponi comes to the bar in which Nellie works. Struck by Louie's resemblance to Nick's father, Nellie begins to flirt with him, but the cold-blooded Louie rebuffs her. Meanwhile, at the Romano apartment, Nick is about to leave to confront Eddie, a member of the gang, when George, who has just been released from prison, arrives. Nick excuses himself to meet Eddie in the alley, and when George sees the rest of the gang jump Nick, he springs to the boy's defense. After Nick and the others are arrested for disturbing the peace, Nellie is summoned to night court for Nick's arraignment. Upon learning of Nick's predicament, Wart sends Fran to find Judge Sullivan at his flophouse, but the judge protests that he is too drunk to defend Nick in court. Taking another swig of alcohol for courage, the judge finally agrees to accompany Fran to court, and they enter just as the magistrate sends George back to prison for violating his parole and sentences the rest of the boys to a fine of $50 each or ten days in jail. Identifying himself as a judge emeritus from the district court of appeals, the judge makes an impassioned plea for a trial by jury, but after he topples over drunk, the magistrate calls him a disgrace and a drunken vagrant. Just then, Louie arrives to pay Nick's fine and gives Nellie his business card. The next day, Nellie goes to the address on the business card, a florist shop that serves as a front for Louie's bookie operation, to repay the $50. Louie refuses the money and instead seduces her. At the apartment, meanwhile, Nick is practicing the piano when the judge comes to apologize. When Nellie comes home, she chastises Nick for fighting and he retorts that he was fighting to preserve her honor. Angry, Nick calls the judge a big drunk and storms out of the house, after which the judge resolves to help Nick by introducing him to "an old friend from another day." While the judge takes Nick to the posh North Shore of Chicago to meet his old friend, Grant Holloway, Louie cements Nellie's relationship as his mistress by plying her with heroin. At Holloway's penthouse, Nick impresses Grant and his daughter Barbara, or "Bobby," with his virtuosity at the piano. After Nick finishes playing, Grant takes him aside and confides that he defended his father at his murder trial and feels responsible for losing the case. Stating that he now feels an obligation to help Nick, Grant promises to help him win a scholarship to the conservatory. Soon, Bobby and Nick begin to date, and one day, while at The Art Institute of Chicago, they decide to go steady. Meanwhile, the judge, who is secretly in love with Nellie, sees her with Louie and bemoans to Fran that he feels like an old fool. Fran then informs the judge that Louie uses his floral shop as a front to deal heroin and has been supplying Flora for years. When Nick unexpectedly comes home one day and finds Louie poised in a suggestive position over his mother on the couch, he runs out the door. Eavesdropping from the hallway, Nick hears Louie insult Nellie, and when he rushes back to defend his mother, Louie slugs him. After Louie leaves, Nellie admits to Nick that she never married his father, then begins to writhe with symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Unaware that Nellie has become an addict, Nick believes that his mother's illness is due to her alcoholism. That night, when Bobby tells her father she has fallen in love with Nick, Grant worries about the difference in their backgrounds. After Nick phones Bobby to break a date because of his mother's illness, a concerned Bobby and her father come to the Romanos' apartment, where an embarrassed Nick orders them to go away, then calls his mother a dirty rotten drunk. The next day, Nellie goes to Louie to beg him for a fix so that she can attend Nick's audition at the conservatory. Louie demands that she pay for the drug, telling her to use the money she has been saving for Nick's schooling. After securing a packet of heroin, Nellie runs home to get a fix in her bathroom, and when Nick opens the door, he sees her, grabs the needle and smashes it on the floor. Declaring that his father was a killer and his mother a tramp, Nellie hands Nick the checkbook and begs him to withdraw the savings before she hands them over to Louie for drugs. Furious, Nick steals a gun from Wart's newspaper stand and heads to the flower shop to exact revenge on Louie. Meanwhile, the judge consoles Nellie and finally tells her he loves her. As Nellie begs for a fix, Max runs into the apartment to announce that Nick stole Wart's gun, and the judge realizes that the boy is going to the flower shop. At the shop, Flora is begging Louie for heroin when Nick breaks into the office, pulls out his gun and accuses Louie of making his mother an addict. Grabbing the gun from Nick's hand, Louie orders one of his thugs to take him into the back room and inject him with heroin. Meanwhile, Max drives the judge and Nellie to the florist shop, where they demand to see Nick. Declaring that Nick has already departed, Louie throws them out of his office, and when they leave the building they see Flora, who tells them that Louie's thugs are about to inject Nick with heroin in the back room. The judge and Max break down the door to Louie's office and as the judge strangles Louie with his bare hands, Louie shoots him with Nick's gun. As the judge and Louie stumble into the alley, Nellie frees Nick, sparing him from certain addiction, and they run into the alley, where they find the judge has collapsed from his wounds. As Nellie and Nick hover over him, the judge gasps "It's too late for me, don't let it be for you." Later, as the group assembles to examine the judge's belongings, Nellie vows to take the cure for Nick's sake, but Max observes that Nick is now grown up and will be leaving them. Meanwhile, Nick and Bobby meet on a street corner and walk past The Art Institute.