Ben Hecht's reminiscences from his youth as a cub reporter in 1910 Chicago makes an uneasy transition to the screen in this Norman Jewison production. During the Galena, Illinois, Independence Day celebration of 1910, Ben Young (Beau Bridges) determines that it is time to seek his fortune and sets out by train to Chicago.
Once in Chicago, Ben has his money stolen, and he faints from hunger. To his rescue comes Queen Lil (Melina Mecouri), a local madam, who takes him to her brothel, where he is allowed to stay on the top floor of the house. Queen Lil gets Ben a job on the Chicago Journal and he meets the gruff, but kind, editor Francis X. Sullivan (Brian Keith).
Sullivan takes Ben on a drinking tour of the Tenderloin, where Ben's naiveté is given a good working-over as Ben experiences the political realities of the city. Ben decides to devote his life to reforming the shady politics of Chicago.
Meanwhile, reform leader Axel P. Johanson (George Kennedy) is trying to obtain a ledger of civic corruption compiled by Honest Tim Grogan (Hume Cronyn). During a party for Grogan at Queen Lil's, Ben inspires friendly prostitute Adeline (Margot Kidder) to change her evil ways.
Her first act as a reformer is to steal Grogan's ledger and join the Salvation Army mission. But everyone thinks that Ben has stolen the ledger, and soon Sullivan, Queen Lil, Grogan and Johanson are all after him to get the ledger back.