Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) comes back to Monterey, after years on the road, to move back into the family house with her brother (Keith Andes). "Home is where you come when you run out of other places," she snarls. But her purpose is not to settle down so much as to lick wounds. Her search for a better, easier life than working in a cannery (like Monroe's Peggy) or marrying a fisherman and raising kids has proven a bitter disappointment. She slinks back into town ("Home is where you go when you run out of places") and word gets 'round that Joe's sister's back, which attracts the attention of Jerry D'Amato (Douglas), a bachelor-fisherman living with his widowed father (Silvio Minciotti) and sleazy Uncle Vince (J. Carroll Naish). Mae and Jerry start seeing each other, but she rejects any advances he makes, telling him he doesn't even know her, "what kind of animal I am. Do I have fangs? Do I purr?"
He takes her to meet his friend Earl (Robert Ryan), whom Jerry describes as "in the movie business;" He runs the projector at the local bijou. Earl's one piece of work. A sour drinker, married to a vaudeville dancer, he'll tell you all about what's wrong with women to your date. "Take any six of them. Throw them up in the air. The one who sticks to the ceiling, I like."* Mae is repulsed, but Jerry is still loyal to Earl, even though he'll talk bad about his friend behind his back. "Jerry's the salt of the Earth—but he's not the right seasoning for you." (Ugh. Odets) Again, Mae's reaction to Earl is to be repulsed, which sends her right into the arms of Jerry, and any previous objections she had to marrying him are suddenly forgotten. Before long, they're hitched and have a daughter, which is upsetting to Jerry's opportunistic Uncle Vince, who will never put up with anything that interrupts his mooching lifestyle. Jerry ends up throwing him out.
But, Mae is still restless, and complications ensue that tie back to life in the animal kingdom, and the charm of aggressive males. Because the movie then starts to take place solely at night, there are those that will call this a "film noir," the genre most commonly associated with gangsters, surly private eyes, never-spoken-of family secrets, and the evil impulses of men. Got the last one right, as the worst of people gets the better of others. But, the film noir genre is less prominent than the soap opera one, and it doesn't help that the material is sometimes eye-rollingly colorful. Still, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Lang's hand is sure, and makes puts everything in the proper perspective.