Charley Grayson (Jay C. Flippen), an old circus owner, is the the first American carnival to play in Munich, Germany - a few years after the devastation of WW2.
Joe Hammond (Steve Cochran), catches a pickpocket, Willi (Anne Baxter), a blonde with a man's name but without the fifty cents entrance fee to the circus, after she spends some of his money to buy a sausage to appease her hunger. Her situation, and her beauty, leads him to offer her to stay with the circus, working as a cook. After the girl takes a shower with bubbly American soap, he kisses her.
Frank Colloni (Lyle Bettger) has the more risky job of the troupe, and the one that attracts more crowds: high diving into a pool covered with blazing oil. Willi is also smitten by his athleticism and courage, and when he feels a headache, she offers him a massage. Soon, he breaks her fears, and gets her with him in the act of high diving - training her step by step.
Joe is still wooing Willi, whistling outside the ladies' common tent for her to come out and for them to make love in secret. After she had seen him having lunch too close to Peggy (Helene Stanley), the redhead in the Haitian dance group, she hesitates to go. Then she gets up, puts on a dressing gown, and makes for the door.
Peggy had also heard him, and quickly stands up in her pajamas, blocking her rival's way. Willi shoves her aside, and the scratching, rolling cat-fight is on, stopped by the other awaken girls. Willi confronts Joe, and complains of their situation - but he is not of the marrying kind.
One day, Charley Grayson introduces the pair of high jumpers, to the great acclaim of a large crowd. After their number, Frank proposes to Willi, and she accepts. Immediately after, she informs Joe that their affair is finished, and to her rage, he says that the marriage does not mean they can't be lovers.
After the Collonis' marriage feast, Joe figures he can still exercise his sexual hold over Willi; he keeps appearing to Willi when she is by herself, until one day he tries to kiss her by force. Frank finds them together, and the two men fight over her, in such way that they awake the full circus - and make a spectacle of themselves.
Joe demands that Charley dismisses Frank - and he does so. Frank is ready to go, and he tells his wife then that he has money enough to buy themselves a farm, and start a new life. Willi is too adventurous to leave the circus. She asks her part of the money but he refuses that. Eventually they make peace - and love.
Next evening, the Collonis pose for Life magazine photo reporter, Bill Vines (George Nader) before the show. But there is no show. When Joe is on the last steps of the ladder to the plunging platform, he falls back - and dies.
Willi inherits Jo's US$ 5,000 cash by the will he had written the day after their marriage feast. Bill shows her the published photo report, but Willi is too shocked to enjoy it. She finds sympathy in him, and confesses to him how her marriage had not been a happy one due to Joe's harassment.
Joe approaches Willi, tells her that he stopped seeing Peggy, and that he is not good for her. As she still loves him, they sleep together again. Next morning, she wakes up to find that all the stuff in the caravan had been rummaged, and the hidden cash is gone. Joe, too, is gone from the circus. She demands Charley more money to keep on with the high diving act alone, which he reluctantly accepts.
Next evening, Willi's high dive his successful, but she faints when she hits the water. Her recovery from hospital is helped by Bill's companionship - that is turning into love. She receives a phone call from Charley, but Frank is close to the phone - and despite apparently she shuns him away on the phone call, she returns to the carnival... to be close to him.
From all the carnival's people who had greeted her at the marriage ceremony, only the mute giant, Groppo (Adi Berber), comes now by her - offering her a bouquet of wild flowers.
Willi returns to her successful act, and Jo returns to her. He promises to give her back the money he took, and in his attempt to win her affection, he confesses he has worked the wood steps so that they would break under Frank's feet causing the accident - to have her just for himself. She screams, and he tries to strangle her.
Groppo intervenes, hunts Frank into the Ferris wheel, from where he throws him down to a death similar to that of Frank's. Groppo is about to commit suicide, but Willi talks him into coming down, and letting the police take him.
Eventually, Willi ends up with Bill's arm to support her.