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In 1935, United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics Agent Michael Barrows (Powell) is assigned to find an unidentified freighter suspected of smuggling drugs. When he and the Coast Guard spot it along the California coast, they give chase. Barrows watches helplessly through binoculars as the freighter captain has about a hundred chained slave laborers thrown overboard to drown. The ship escapes by passing beyond the 12-mile limit and entering international waters. Horrified by what he has seen, Barrows determines to smash the narcotics ring – traveling "to the ends of the Earth" if need be – without first clearing it with his boss, Commissioner H. J. Anslinger (played by the real Harry J. Anslinger).