Gangster Lucky Jordan (Alan Ladd) narrowly escapes death at the hands of an assassin hired by his ambitious right hand man, Slip Moran (Sheldon Leonard); his decoy double Eddie is killed instead.
Meanwhile, Lucky has been drafted. His lawyer, Ernest Higgins (Lloyd Corrigan), tries to get him off by giving the orphaned Lucky a "mother" in alcoholic panhandler Annie (Mabel Paige), but the draft board is unconvinced, and he ends up in the army. To avoid work, Lucky lounges in the canteen, where he meets Jill Evans (Helen Walker). He gets found out and is thrown in the stockade, but escapes. To get out of camp, he steals the car and papers of an army engineer.
To his puzzlement, two thugs catch up to him on the road and try to rough him up. They leave when Jill drives up. Lucky takes Jill along with him against her will, and they become acquainted. She threatens to throw out Lucky's papers if he does not let her go. Since they are not his, he is unconcerned when she dumps them by the roadside.
When Lucky sneaks back into the city, he finds Slip occupying his office. Slip tells him about some foreigners who are paying him plenty of money to sabotage the American war effort. He even takes credit (and payment) for the burning of the SS Normandie, even though he had nothing to do with it. It turns that the two goons Lucky encountered were after papers dealing with secret new tank armor.
The trio head back to look for the papers. When Lucky finds them, Slip pulls a gun on him. Fortunately, Lucky is able to knock Slip out; Jill persuades him not to kill the helpless Slip.
Still, for $50,000, Lucky is willing to pass along the papers. He phones Slip to arrange an exchange. Annie warns him that Slip has set up a trap, and offers to hide him at her place. Lucky is willing to try selling out his country again, but he is spotted by Slip's men. They follow him back to his hideout. While he is out, they beat Annie up, but she tells them nothing. When Lucky gets back, he checks out where he hid the papers; the thugs (who hid in the apartment) knock him out and take them.
From a slim clue, Lucky tracks the spy ring to Kilpatrick Gardens on Long Island. He sneaks around and finds Slip and Kilpatrick (Miles Mander) with the papers. He manages to grab them and race away. All the exits are locked and watched, but when a man who had been taking a public tour of the place demands from a guard the return of an umbrella he left behind, Lucky hides the papers and an explanatory note inside the rolled up umbrella.
Jill, having spotted Lucky, trails him to the gardens, and asks a guard for the use of the telephone to notify the authorities. Instead, he puts her through to Kilpatrick, who masquerades as an FBI agent. Totally deceived, she helps capture Lucky. Herr Kesselman (John Wengraf), the leader of the spies, is disappointed when Lucky, under the mere threat of torture, quickly discloses where he supposedly hid the papers; Kesselman had thought that there were many similarities between Nazis and American gangsters. After most of the spies head off to search, Lucky manages to wrestle away the lone guard's gun. He tells Kesselman he is going to turn over the papers to the government out of new-found patriotism when real FBI agents arrive. Jill tells Lucky he will probably get a medal, but he actually ends up digging a ditch with other army prisoners under the watchful eye of his former drill sergeant (Charles Cane).Alan Ladd as Lucky Jordan
Helen Walker as Jill Evans
Sheldon Leonard as Slip Moran
Mabel Paige as Annie
Marie McDonald as Pearl, Lucky's secretary
Lloyd Corrigan as Ernest Higgins
Dave Willock as Angelo Palacio
Russell Hoyt as Eddie
John Wengraf as Herr Kesselman
Miles Mander as Kilpatrick
Clem Bevans as Gas station attendant
Anthony Caruso as Hired Gun / Gardener
Charles Cane as Sergeant
George Meader as Little Man
Virginia Brissac as Little Man's Wife
Kitty Kelly as Vera Maggotti
George Humbert as Joe Maggotti
Al Hill as First Killer
Fred Kohler, Jr. as Second Killer
The film was based on an original screenplay by Charles Leonard about a gangster who joins the army called Prelude to Glory. Paramount bought it in March 1942 as a vehicle for Alan Ladd. Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware were put to work rewriting it. It was Ladd's second film since becoming a star and would be the first where he was billed alone above the title.
Paulette Goddard was announced as Ladd's co-star and Frank Tuttle was assigned to direct. Marie McDonald, who had just signed with Paramount, was given the role of Ladd's secretary.
Goddard eventually dropped out and her part was taken by Helen Walker. Walker had only arrived in Hollywood a month before being cast; she had been signed by Paramount on the basis of her Broadway success in Jason. This was her first film role.
Mabel Paige was cast off the back of her success in Young and Willing.
The movie was retitled Lucky Jordan in July.
The briefcase used by Alan Ladd in the film is the same briefcase he used as Raven in This Gun for Hire - the actor considered the prop good luck.
The film broke the house record at New York's Rialto cinema in its first year of release.