People have been seeing as long as they've had eyes, and as long as the societal see-saw ensures that as one person goes up, another has to go down. And in that imbalance of opportunity germinates prejudice, disguising jealousy, as if in sheep's clothing, with "principle."
This is the situation that Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart, playing a regular "joe," for once) finds himself in, when he finds that his sure-fire promotion goes to a studious young man with a "ski" at the end of his name. Bitter and isolating himself from his family, his wife and son, he's recruited by a co-worker to join a secret society of white supremacists (who are so discriminating they only prey on other whites). They run offenders out of town, but not before meting a punishment of whipping, then destroying all the property they own. The police are a little slow in this burg to follow up on clues, especially when there's a motorcade of guys in robes speeding through the night (they can't trace tire tracks?)—but, as the group is composed of prominent whites in town, maybe some of them have badges under the robes.
For a time, the short-term benefits are great for Frank. He gets a night out with the boys, drinking and crowing over their nocturnal activities, and he even gets the promotion previously denied him when his rival if given the bum's rush on an outbound train. Then things start hitting close to home, affecting his home-life and the lives of his friends. But Frank has sworn an oath of silence not to rat out his prey-mates. And the contract is non-negotiable.
"In the name of God and the Devil, one to reward and the other to punish, and by the powers of light and darkness, good and evil, here under the black arch of Heaven's avenging symbol, I pledge and consecrate my heart, my brain, my body, and my limbs and swear by all the powers of Heaven and Hell to devote my life to the obedience of my superiors and that no danger or peril shall deter me from executing their orders. That I will exert every possible means in my power for the extermination of the anarchist, the Roman hierarchy and their abettors. I swear that I will die fighting those whose serpent trail has winnowed the fair fields of our allies and sympathizers. I will show no mercy but strike with an avenging arm as long as breath remains. I further pledge my heart, my brain, my body, my limbs never to betray a comrade and that I will submit to all the tortures mankind can inflict and suffer the most horrible death rather than reveal a single word of this, my oath, before violating a single clause or implied pledge of this my obligation. I will pray to an avenging God and an unmerciful Devil to tear my heart out and roast it over the flames of sulfur, and lastly may my soul be given into the torment that my body be submerged into molten metal... and stifled into the flames of Hell, and that this punishment may be meted out to me through all eternity. In the name of God, our creator, Amen."
Sounds like some contracts I've had to sign recently. Credit card statements. Creepy stuff, and Frank's spineless enough to fold at any opportunity to stand up. It's an American tragedy, although whatever punishment he receives doesn't compare to those he's dished out. There are no heroes in this one, only victims and the Warner Brothers production takes on the topic of vigilantism, domestic terrorism, and prejudice with a semi-soft-pedaled spirit of outrage. It could be—and probably should be—considerably rougher, but for the time—before World War II and it's institutionalized terror—it's a parable for the common man to "get along," something else that war taught us in the concentrated efforts of allies of every color and faith to band together and truly deliver us from real evil.