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In 1949, Ed Crane works at a two-man barbershop owned by his brother-in-law, the loquacious Frank Raffo, in Santa Rosa, California. Ed does not consider himself a barber, just somebody who works as one, while his wife Doris works as a bookkeeper for Nirdlinger's department store. Ed is a man of few words, and at a dinner party for Doris' boss, Big Dave Alan Brewster and his heiress wife, Ann Nirdlinger, Big Dave keeps up the conversation with tall stories about the Pacific war. Ed observes to himself that Big Dave and Doris are closer than she lets on, but he has no interest in interfering. In the barbershop the next day, a new customer named Creighton Tolliver tells Ed that a local businessman has turned down his venture capital scheme for a new dry-cleaning business. Ed mulls the idea over all night and visits Creighton in his hotel room, telling him that he will come up with the $10,000 required investment within a week. Ed fends off a mild pass from Creighton and later writes an anonymous blackmail note to Big Dave demanding $10,000, and threatening that his affair with Doris will be made public if the money is not paid. Big Dave draws Ed into his office during the Nirdlinger's Christmas party and confides in him about the blackmail note, but claims that his lover is no one Ed knows. Big Dave is distraught because paying out the money will prevent him from opening his own annex of the department store, and he fears the censure of his wife and her wealthy family. Ed listens quietly as Big Dave blames Creighton because he had turned down the speculator's scheme, and because Creighton may have seen Big Dave with his lover at his hotel. After leaving the office, Ed is drawn to teenager Rachel "Birdy" Abundas, the daughter of his lawyer friend Walter, while she plays a Beethoven sonata on a piano in a darkened room. On the drive home that night, Doris complains that Big Dave has mishandled his money and because he will not be opening the annex, she will not get a promotion. The next day, Ed collects the blackmail money as pre-arranged and immediately delivers it to Creighton, who has him sign partnership papers. Late the next night, Doris sleeps off having had too much wine at a relative's wedding, unaware that Ed has been called to see Big Dave in the deserted department store. Big Dave reveals that he has beaten the truth out of Creighton. He now attacks Ed, but when he attempts to strangle him, Ed knifes him in the side of the throat. Big Dave dies in a pool of blood and Ed returns home, picking up where he left off in his recollections about when he and Doris first met. Doris is arrested for Big Dave's murder and Walter recommends Ed to Freddy Riedenschneider, an expensive, top-notch Sacramento attorney. Late in the night, Ann visits Ed and reveals that she believes the government murdered Big Dave because she and her husband reported that they had been abducted by aliens while in Eugene, Oregon. The next day, Freddy interviews Doris and Ed, searching for an angle with which to defend her. Ed confesses to the murder, but Freddy brushes this off as an attempt to save his wife, while Doris wordlessly understands it is true. Frank is forced to mortgage his shop in order to pay Freddy, and Ed silently berates himself when he discovers that Creighton has disappeared. Ed seeks solace at the Abundas home, visiting nightly to hear Birdy play Beethoven. During another meeting with Ed and Doris, Freddy expounds on a German scientist's theory that observing something changes it. He then introduces private investigator Burns, who has discovered that Big Dave lied about being a war hero, when in fact during the war he worked as a clerk at a naval shipyard. Freddy is convinced that this will introduce enough reasonable doubt to free Doris. Ed, meanwhile, begins envisioning a new life for himself managing Birdy's professional career as a concert pianist. Everyone is stunned when the trial is canceled because Doris hanged herself in her cell. Frank is so debilitated by his sister's death that he stops working and Ed hires a new barber, who, much to his chagrin, talks just as much as Frank. Although his life continues much as before, Ed now feels like a ghost. After learning from the medical examiner that the wife with whom he had not slept in years was pregnant at the time of her death, Ed tries to contact Doris through a medium, only to realize the absurdity of it. Ed then focuses his efforts on Birdy and gets her an audition with prominent San Francisco music teacher Jacques Carcanogues. Carcanogues tells Ed that Birdy's playing is polite but dispassionate and that she has no future as a professional. On the drive home, Birdy, who has never been interested in a professional career, tries to console Ed by performing oral sex on him. Ed is shocked and protests vehemently, then accidentally drives off the road. As the car sails through the air, time slows for Ed, and he ponders why hair continues to grow after a person dies, and how it knows to stop. Ed finds himself on his porch, smoking a cigarette. Doris arrives home and fends off a pavement salesman, after which she and Ed sit silently on their living room couch. Ed speaks her name, but she tells him to say nothing, and that he is fine. Ed then awakens in the hospital, severely battered by the car accident, and learns that although Birdy is alive and well, he is being arrested for Creighton's death as the salesman's beaten body was recently discovered in his sunken car. Ed signs over his house to Freddy, who agrees to take the case to make up for Doris' lost trial. Although Freddy makes a brilliant argument, Frank loses control and slugs Ed in court, and a mistrial is declared. Ed can no longer afford Freddy's counsel and hires a lesser attorney, Lloyd Garroway. In the next trial, Ed is found guilty and sentenced to death by execution. He finishes writing his story for the magazine Stalwart in his cell, and notes that writing it has helped him see his story as a whole, rather than disconnected pieces. As he is being strapped to the electric chair, Ed reflects that although he is sorry to have caused people pain, the only thing he ever regretted was being a barber. He now looks forward to seeing Doris again and telling her "all those things they don't have words for here."