In 1949, Ed Crane is a low-key barber in the town of Santa Rosa, California. He is married to Doris, a bookkeeper with a drinking problem, and he works in a barber shop that is owned by his brother-in-law, Frank. A customer named Creighton Tolliver tells Ed that he is a businessman looking for investors to put up $10,000 in a new technology called dry cleaning. Ed decides to collect money by anonymously blackmailing Doris’ boss, “Big Dave” Brewster, whom he suspects is having an affair with Doris. Dave embezzles money from his department store to pay the blackmail. However, Brewster soon pieces together the scheme, and beats Tolliver until he implicates Ed. Dave confronts Ed at the store and attempts to kill him, but Ed stabs Dave fatally with a cigar knife.
After irregularities in the store’s books are found, the police arrest Doris for embezzlement and Dave’s murder. Ed is persuaded to hire Freddy Riedenschneider, a defense attorney from Sacramento, who arrives and takes up residence in the most expensive hotel in town. He proceeds to live lavishly on Doris’ defense fund, which Frank obtained by mortgaging the barber shop. It is all for nothing, because on the morning of the trial Doris hangs herself in her cell. It is later revealed that she was pregnant when she hanged herself, but had not had sex with Ed for many years. Riedenschneider leaves town, and Frank, now deeply in debt, starts drinking heavily.
Ed makes regular visits to Rachel “Birdy” Abundas, a friend’s teenage daughter, to hear her play the piano. Tormented by loneliness, he imagines helping her start a musical career and becoming her manager. The fantasy is crushed when a music teacher tells him that Birdy has no talent. On the way back from visiting the teacher, Birdy makes a pass at Ed and attempts to perform oral sex on him, causing Ed to lose control of the car and crash.
Ed wakes up in a hospital bed and two police officers arrest him for murder. Tolliver’s beaten body has been found with Ed’s investment contract. The police speculate that Ed coerced Doris into embezzling the investment money, and when Tolliver found out, he was killed. Ed mortgages his house and hires Riedenschneider for his defense. During Riedenschneider’s opening statement, Frank attacks Ed, and a mistrial is declared. With no means left for his defense, Ed throws himself on the mercy of the court. The tactic fails, and the judge sentences him to death.
While waiting on death row, Ed writes his story to sell to a pulp magazine. Shortly before his execution, Ed sees a UFO outside the jailhouse. As Ed is electrocuted, he reflects on his fate, regretting none of his decisions and hoping to see Doris in the afterlife, both of them free of the mortal world’s imperfections.