In 1867, a gang led by James "Stretch" Dawson (Gregory Peck) robs a bank and flees into the desert. Out of water, the outlaws come upon a ghost town called Yellow Sky and its only residents, a hostile young woman called "Mike" (Anne Baxter) by her prospector grandfather (played by James Barton). Stretch is attracted to Mike. While the men recover from their ordeal, Dude (Richard Widmark) snoops around. Dude tells the others that the old man is mining gold, but Stretch is unimpressed. The next day, Mike and Grandpa take to the hills. A confrontation between Stretch and Dude over the leadership of the gang is interrupted by Mike shooting at them. However, when Grandpa is hit in the leg by a ricochet, Mike surrenders.
Back in the house, Grandpa offers to split his gold, worth roughly $50,000 by his estimate. Later, Lengthy (John Russell) grabs Mike, and youngster Bull Run (Robert Arthur) tries unsuccessfully to intervene. Stretch rescues him and holds Lengthy's head underwater until he nearly drowns. That night, Stretch assures Mike and Grandpa that he will keep to the bargain, with Dude eavesdropping. The next day, a large band of Apaches appear while the gang is at the mine digging up the gold. Stretch sneaks into town. Grandpa tells him that he convinced his friends to return to the reservation. In gratitude for the old man not sending the Indians to wipe out his gang, Stretch tells his men that they will share the gold, but Dude draws his gun and fires. The rest of the outlaws follow his example. Mike shows up and helps a slightly wounded Stretch back to her home. Not wanting to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders for Stretch, the gang surrounds the house.
In the ensuing gunfight, they think that Stretch has been killed. Dude takes the opportunity to shoot at Lengthy, but misses. He then runs off to try to take all the gold for himself, with his would-be victim in pursuit. Bull Run is fatally wounded, and Walrus (Charles Kemper) and Half Pint (Harry Morgan) decide to switch sides. Stretch then goes after Dude and Lengthy. A deadly three-sided shootout in the unlit saloon follows. Afterwards, a frantic Mike finds Dude and Lengthy dead and Stretch wounded. After Stretch recovers, he, Walrus and Half Pint, who is now wearing Dude's clothes, return to the bank they robbed and give back the stolen money. Then, they ride off with Mike and Grandpa.Gregory Peck as James "Stretch" Dawson
Anne Baxter as "Mike" (Constance Mae)
Richard Widmark as Dude
Robert Arthur as Bull Run
John Russell as Lengthy
Harry Morgan as Half Pint
James Barton as Grandpa
Charles Kemper as Walrus
In a memo, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck suggested Walter Huston for the role of Grandpa and Fred Clark for Lengthy. Paulette Goddard was originally cast as Mike.
The studio purchased W. R. Burnett's unpublished novel for $35,000 in November 1947. All drafts of the screenplay were written by Lamar Trotti. Exteriors were also filmed at Death Valley National Monument, with the cast and crew living at Furnace Creek Inn and Camp, which was leased from the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The western commenced a construction crew of over 150 men and women to build a ghost town in the desert near Lone Pine, California, by demolishing a movie set, called "Last Outpost", that Tom Mix had built in 1923. At the time of filming, animal cruelty regulations permitted horses to be on the set for only three hours.
The opening and closing music was taken from Alfred Newman's score for the Twentieth Century-Fox film Brigham Young (1940), which was also written by Trotti.
Burnett published his novel in 1950 as Stretch Dawson.
The success of the film spawned a radio adaptation starring Peck and hosted by director William A. Wellman, which was broadcast on Screen Directors Playhouse on NBC Radio on July 15, 1949. The film was remade in 1967 as The Jackals. Filmed in South Africa at Killarney Film Studios by producer-director Robert D. Webb, The Jackals starred Robert Gunner, Diana Iverson and, as the old man, Vincent Price.