A former Chicago policeman, Jim Slade (Lancaster), has just been released on parole from prison for shooting his wife’s lover in their bed. He goes to live with friends, Quartz (Cameron Mitchell) and wife Judy (Joan Lorring), in a small town where he has been offered a job (part of his parole agreement) as a night watchman at Jordon College.
A coed (Catherine Bach) is murdered and the local sheriff, Casey (Harris Yulin), tries to pin the crime on a creepy college janitor (Charles Tyner) who spouts Biblical revelation while hiding pornography. Slade has other ideas and pursues an unauthorized investigation of his own. “Taking the lid off the hornet’s nest involves him in considerable danger as blackmails, beatings, attempted rape and further murders wrestle for screentime before the long and-overcomplicated drama grinds to a close.” 
The murdered student turns out to be the daughter of Senator Clayborne (Morgan Woodward), who subsequently receives blackmail letters over his daughter Natalie’s confession to her campus psychiatric department counselor about an incestuous relationship with her father. Incriminating cassette tapes of the account have fallen into the hands of the blackmailers. Slade questions possible suspects including Natalie Clayborne’s estranged boyfriend Arthur King (played by Burt Lancaster’s son, William), who declares to Slade that the generation gap “just got a little wider,” and Dean Collins, the psych professor (played by actual Clemson faculty member Harold N. Cooledge Jr.), as well as a nerdy student whose taped psych rant was also stolen and Senator Clayborne himself.
All the while, Slade is being warned off of overstepping his authority as a mere night watchman, no longer a cop, by his parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark), as well as by his buddy Quartz. A brief affair between Slade and Thorpe begins. A rustic family of thugs, including Leroy (Ed Lauter), overseen by a “Ma Barker”-ish mother arrive, turning out to be “muscle” for certain corrupt members of the Sheriff’s Department.
Slade realizes that both the parole officer and Quartz are the powers behind the crime, a conclusion Slade reaches as he watches his friend hobble around the cinder track, on crutches from a broken leg. Only Quartz could have known one critical clue in the cover-up of the original murder. Sheriff Casey rolls up and arrests Quartz. As they depart, Slade confronts Thorpe, who produces the stolen tapes, hidden in her freezer, knowing that the jig is up and she, too, is about to be arrested.
The film concludes with the sheriff offering Slade an apology and a job, even though, as a convicted violent felon, Slade cannot hold a position with the law.