One night after finishing his rounds as security chief at Jordan College, Quartz Willinger (Cameron Mitchell) stops by an after-hours club for a drink and walks in on the middle of a robbery, during which he is savagely beaten by three hillbilly thugs. While recovering from his injuries, he needs a replacement and arranges to hire an old friend, Jim Slade (Burt Lancaster), an ex-cop who has just been paroled on a murder conviction, for killing the man he caught with his wife. He finds the job an awkward fit but a welcome relief from prison, especially once he meets his parole officer, Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark). On his first night on the job, there's a break-in at the office of the college's resident psychiatrist (Robert Quarry), and the theft of some tapes made by students, only one of whom -- Natalie Clayborne (Catherine Bach), a pretty yet troubled coed, and daughter of a very powerful politician (Morgan Woodward) -- isn't upset by the incident. The next night, Slade finds her getting drunk in town and gets her back to the campus. When Natalie turns up dead, the county sheriff, Casey (Harris Yulin), glances at him briefly as a suspect before arresting the custodian Ewing (Charles Tyner), who was a religious nut with a collection of pornography and a fixation on Natalie. But Slade isn't convinced of Ewing's guilt and starts to investigate the crime himself with help from Linda. Despite Casey's pressuring him to stay out of it, the ex-cop soon discovers Jordan College, the town, and the surrounding county are a nasty border-state version of Peyton Place, populated by lots of people with skeletons in their closets, including blackmail, incest, and murder, with hardly an institution not corrupted by some part of it. What's more, in a series of twists worthy of The Big Sleep (book or movie), he uncovers a connection between the thugs who beat up Quartz and the stolen tape and the murder, which results in the brutal killing of his witnesses and Slade fighting for his life. And he still has to face the truth about the two people in the midst of this corruption that he trusted.