Eddie is a good, near destitute man looking for love and happiness in a strange world filled with industrial blight and alienation. Through his dreams, Eddie comes to understand what drives his desire for change and happiness. His dreams and reality soon become blurred.
Eddie dreams about his childhood. His father is attentive and loving, but driven away by discord. His mother, enraged by her boy's disruption of a love affair, causes an accident which scars his right eye. The dream ends by showing first the torment which Eddie suffers at the hands of his schoolmates, and then by the mysterious figure who haunts him in his dreams—a man emerging from a dark tunnel shouting at Eddie, his head ablaze.
Eddie wakes, and we see the result of his past is his present circumstance: a flophouse room, a dead-end janitorial job at a cold storage plant, and a life that is only one step away from the gutter. We meet his boss, Claude, a cold and calculating man who knows and exploits the power he has over his desperate employees. Eddie meets Mary, a new secretary in Claude's business who is almost impossibly kind to Eddie. Mary becomes that which keeps Eddie going—his last hope for happiness turns on her.
On the way back from work, Eddie happens upon his old friend Harry—an elderly and homeless alcoholic whom Eddie befriended when he was on the streets. He's of ill health and his pessimism about the possibility of good coming back to a good person contrasts Eddie's hopeful optimism and faith. He's a man who has confronted life and fate and lost. That night Eddie dreams of his father and of the love he's found in Mary. Both are linked in his mind to the ocean—to regeneration, purity, light, and the life almost within Eddie's grasp. But again the dream ends with the appearance of fire—jolting him from his sleep. Eddie's workday begins . . .
Claude resumes his torment, first of Mary (whom he tries to seduce and presently begins to threaten), and then of Eddie. But hope is kindled in Eddie through the voice of his father that comes to him in a daydream and through his feelings for Mary. He's able to help Harry to get off the streets and into a transient hotel. Almost miraculous, Mary asks him out to dinner. Even though she is mysteriously late because of work, the dinner goes unbelievably well, and in Eddie's eyes, a new life has begun. That night his dreams are again of the ocean, his father, and of Mary. He sees in the future a warm vision of their marriage and of a son. But again all of this is swept away by the fiercely ominous figure of a man on fire screaming a broken sentence. Torn between what this might mean and anxious that he will lose his grasp on the future he wants so desperately, Eddie's sense of what's real become increasingly unclear.
Mary tells Eddie that her birthday is approaching. They stand on a lush green hilltop watching a swarm of birds circle above them in blue skies.
The following day Eddie visits the seashore and discovers a gift for Mary, a beautiful starfish clinging to the rocks in a tide pool. On the way home, Eddie stops off to see Harry, but finds out that the proprietor of the hotel has taken the money and thrown Harry out. Knowing Harry is ill, Eddie begins to look for him. Finally, on the outskirts of this strange city, he finds Harry curled up in a cardboard box underneath an oil derrick. Harry dies in his arms. Upset, and determined not to end up like Harry, Eddie makes a final bid for love. He calls upon his father and God to shine above him. He wants a new life. He rushes to see Mary, gift in hand, but Claude has gotten there first.
Claude has pressured Mary to be with him and Eddie finds them together. He punches Claude and leaves. He begins a violent rampage and becomes self-destructive. An ambulance winds up taking him away and suddenly everything is tranquil. Eddie begins to dream . . . once again he is a boy walking peacefully down a garden river. The sun begins to set over the white reflections of the ocean . . . everything goes black.
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