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New York City College senior William Popper, formerly an enthusiastic political activist, finds himself strangely uninterested in attending the latest campus rally with his girl friend, Jane Kaufmann. When his father's sister, Ruth Lawrence, pays an unexpected visit, William admits he has no distinct plans after graduation, as he will likely be summoned for military service by the draft. Although somewhat dismayed by William's indifferent response, Ruth changes the subject, encouraging William to visit his father John, whom she worries is becoming a recluse in his Darien, Connecticut home. Surprised to discover that Jane lives with William, Ruth soon leaves. Disappointed that William still refuses to attend the rally, Jane agrees he should visit his father and the two plan to meet back at their apartment later that night. Blocks away from his home, driving through the dark and rain, William fails to see an elderly woman stepping into the street and, to his horror, hits her. After examining the woman, William runs into a nearby bar to report the accident and when the old woman is pronounced dead, is taken into custody for vehicular manslaughter. At the police station, a detective repeatedly questions William about drugs and whether he has any criminal past. When the detective comes upon William's twenty-two parking tickets, expired driver's license and lack of insurance coverage, he advises the young man to contact a lawyer. Later, William is joined by his father John and Ruth's attorney husband, Daniel Lawrence, who berates William for not showing the proper amount of remorse over the incident. After bailing William out of custody, Lawrence continues to criticize the youth for his casual attire and blithe attitude. John accompanies William back to his son's apartment where he meets William's close friend, Melvin Lasher, and Jane. In a private conversation, Jane tells John that it was William who politicized her, but admits that he has gradually moved away from his activitism, which puzzles her. After John's departure, William tells Jane about the accident, calling the event senseless and sad. The next day, William takes a cab to the house of the victim, but the woman's daughter angrily refuses the flowers he proffers and accuses him of carelessness. Later, hearing of the exchange, Lawrence castigates William for visiting the family on his own and perhaps ruining his image for the upcoming trial. Lawrence then informs William that his son, Terence, will handle the case, which will be presented directly to a judge without a jury. Believing that William still does not appreciate the seriousness of his situation, Lawrence demands that he follow his precise directions on behavior and attitude, then disparages William as a hypocrite who is seeking help from the very establishment he despises. After agreeing to Lawrence's terms, William visits his wealthy, cantankerous and racist grandmother who warns him against the wicked intentions of the Catholics, Jews and blacks and threatens to cut him out of her will. When William appears a few days later at his trial dressed in the formal suit recommended by Lawrence, the judge finds that William's numerous parking tickets, expired license and the accident itself suggest negligence and a disrespect for authority, and sentences him to one year of hard labor. Before going to prison, William spends an idyllic week with Jane at his family's cottage. Arriving at the state penitentiary, William is placed in a cell with Senator James J. Moran, convicted of embezzling state funds. A few days later while working at a large dirt pile, black prisoner George Wilson, befriends William and offers him advice on how to ease the strain on his back. While resting a little later, George asks William for help in writing a love letter, which he shyly acknowledges is to another man, and William agrees. That evening, Moran warns William not to get involved with George, as relationships in prison can quickly become dangerous. The next day in the prison showers, George thanks William for his help writing the letter, but is interrupted by another prisoner, McArdle, who objects to George writing to the man who is his lover. McArdle brandishes a knife, angering George and in the ensuing scuffle, George slips and falls against the knife. When George dies, William is called to testify at an inquest. Infuriated by William's refusal to admit that his questionable fraternization may have jeopardized his upcoming appeal, Lawrence sternly advises him to answer only the questions put to him during the inquiry. During the examination, however, William is angered when the district attorney continually implies that there was more to his relationship with George. In an outburst, William declares the knifing an accident, but the judge orders him to remain silent or risk a contempt fine. Incredulous, William lapses into silence. While being escorted back to the police van, William asks to use the restroom and finding a window ajar, flees the building. He then walks to the college campus where he locates Melvin and later, Jane, who has already been warned by the police of William's escape. Jane worriedly pleads with him to turn himself in, but Melvin says it is too dangerous and recommends that William leave the country. William agrees, then visits his grandmother to ask for money. His grandmother tries to dissuade him by revealing that she intends to leave all her money and property to him, but William confesses he does not want any of it. Disappointed, his grandmother nevertheless gives him three thousand dollars. With the money, William has Melvin purchase a used car in which he intends to drive to Canada with Jane. Going to bid farewell to John, William finds Lawrence and Terence waiting, but when they insist he turn himself in, he rages at how the initial accident has led to misunderstandings, false accusations, distortions and the complete denial of truth. Refusing John's offer of money, William promises to write and departs. When the used car abruptly dies, however, William and Jane are forced to contact Melvin for help. Melvin takes the couple to a small airfield where a private pilot agrees to take them to Canada in two days for a thousand dollars. William insists he must leave immediately, but the pilot says he has a scheduled flight to Mexico the next morning. Consulting with Jane, William agrees to go to Mexico. After spending the night in the aircraft's hangar, William and Jane board the small plane and after flying over New York City head off to an unknown future in Mexico.