At an airport, a dapper man, Casey (Walter Pidgeon), picks the pocket of a deaf man, relieving him of his wallet. Casey then meets his old friend Harry (James Coburn) at his arrival gate.
Ray Houlihan (Michael Sarrazin) is an amateur pickpocket making various, obviously inept attempts to steal watches and wallets in Seattle's Union Station. Sandy Coletto (Trish Van Devere), waiting for a train to Chicago, watches him with amusement, securing her own possessions when Ray sits close by. He does, however, manage to get away with her wristwatch, though she chases him down to get him to confess. While talking with Ray, however, her purse and suitcase, both unwatched, are spirited away by an unseen thief.
Bereft of all her possessions and money, she's stranded in Seattle. Ray promises to help her get back on her way, but his means of raising funds is to sell his inventory of stolen watches– watches so poor that the fence is willing to pay only a fraction of the money Ray promised Sandy. In the meantime, the two have gotten interested in each other and become boyfriend and girlfriend.
As a favor, the fence tips Ray off to the presence of a recruiter for a "wire mob"–a traveling professional pick-pocketing band–in town, who will be hanging out at a restaurant in the Pioneer Square district. Ray decides to try it out; Sandy, who's formed an emotional bond with Ray, decides to tag along. At the restaurant they meet Casey, who introduces them to Harry, Casey's protege and "cannon"–the term for a known and skilled professional pickpocket.
After discussion and doubts on Harry's part (Sandy proves something of a natural as she was able to lift Casey's cigarette case undetected), Sandy and Ray are given money to buy better clothes and Harry and Casey begin to train them in the parts they're to play – principally that of the "stall," or the members of the team who will provide distraction in order for Harry to get into the mark and make the "dip".
Harry also inculcates them into the group's modus operandi and operations. The team travels "first-class – everything the best … the best food, the best clothes, the best hotels". In this way they are able to blend into and appear as the classes they are trying to pickpocket. Sandy, being physically attractive, gives the team added advantages in that male marks can presumably mostly have their attention diverted by an attractive young lady in revealing fashions.
The mob travels from Seattle to Victoria BC to Salt Lake City, Sandy and Ray becoming progressively more adept in their roles. Along the way, Ray's ambition to become more than a mere "stall" and the tension between Ray and Harry brought on by the presence of Sandy produce stresses on the group but, by the time the team arrives in Salt Lake City the wire mob have merged into a more-or-less cohesive and successful unit. In the meantime, though, Ray's ambition has gotten him, through ingratiation, to convince Casey to take him on as a student. Casey's training turns Ray into a much more accomplished pickpocket and, when in Salt Lake City, Ray and Sandy begin working on their own time and keeping the take. Moreover, Ray keeps the ID and effects of the people he lifts from, wanting to study them, two things that threaten the survival of the group and makes Harry furious with Ray.
Events come to a head in Salt Lake City when Casey is arrested when a botched handoff from Ray allows the victim to see his wallet in plain sight protruding from Casey's jacket pocket. Casey's case turns complicated when cocaine is found on him and becomes more than just a case of springing him from jail on a pickpocketing charge. Harry decides to raise extra funds quickly by hitting a regional horse show at the Salt Palace arena (admitting that the take could be high – but also the risk), and Ray, who had decided to split from the group, agrees to go in for Casey's sake. Working over the Salt Palace crowd goes rather smoothly, but building security have been alerted that Harry is in town and it's only a matter of time before they catch him – deliberately taking the fall by attempting to drop the wallet in a wastebasket rather than handing off to Ray, but is arrested before he can dispose of the evidence.
Sandy and Ray, above suspicion, watch as Harry is led away by SLC police and building security to an uncertain future.
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