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Mr. X, a painter dressed in clothes from an earlier era, appears in a deserted art gallery shortly after the glass covering a painting shatters. He then sits opposite the same painting, which depicts a dark house on a remote and foggy moor. When Mr. Jarvis, the tour guide, arrives with numerous patrons, he describes the painting as a masterpiece, and remarks that the long-dead artist is unknown. Jarvis later alerts gallery manager Rooke that the glass has again been mysteriously broken. When Rooke leaves, Jarvis converses with Mr. X, remarking that the house in the painting appears to be deserted. Mr. X agrees and suggests that the house needs a light in an upper window. He then urges Jarvis to come close to the painting and focus on the details. When Jarvis follows his instructions, the door of the house opens and the two men enter the world of the painting. Jarvis is astonished when he realizes that he is inside the house, and meets a woman who lives there with Mr. X. Jarvis soon recognizes many pieces of artwork that have disappeared from the gallery throughout the years, and Mr. X confirms that he has furnished the house with objects from the gallery. After Mr. X reveals he has been smoking cigarette butts procured from the gallery ashtrays, Jarvis offers him his own pack, and Mr. X then greedily admires his matches. Mr. X assures the disoriented Jarvis that he is not experiencing a nightmare, but that people live in limbo in all paintings. When Mr. X admits that this painting is his own work, Jarvis remembers that Mr. X is dead. Later, Jarvis meets Snyder, a taxidermist and the third resident of the house. Mr. X complains that Snyder owns the sole candle and flint in the house, and will light the candle only if Mr. X and the woman behave themselves. Mr. X now asks Jarvis for a match, but the tour guide has run out. Mr. X, who is obsessed with the idea of lighting an upper window, refuses to allow Jarvis to leave, and forces him to drink a concoction served by the woman. He then proposes giving Jarvis to Snyder for his trophy room in exchange for the lighted candle. Jarvis, who is now paralyzed by a toxin in the drink, realizes that he is to be the latest subject of Snyder's taxidermy. Snyder consents to light the candle in six minutes, after which Mr. X breaks through the newest pane of glass covering the painting and enters the gallery. Six minutes later, Mr. X hears a faint scream and a light appears in the painting. A young woman then sits next to Mr. X, who is now dissatisfied by an open space under the tree in the painting. The young woman agrees that a delicate statue under the tree would balance the effect of the light, and, after confirming she owns a lighter, Mr. X lures the woman closer to the painting.
As two lifelong friends named George Wheeler and Edgar Curtain grow into adulthood, it is evident that the younger Edgar shines more brilliantly than his staid friend George. One night at a college dance, Edgar's weakness for alcohol becomes evident when he becomes so drunk that he blacks out and remembers nothing. In the years that follow, George tries to prevent Edgar from ever again drinking too much. The friends continue to work together in advertising after they graduate and, three years later, start their own business and share an apartment. One day while Edgar is away on a business trip, George falls in love with Elizabeth Grange, whom he meets at a concert. When Edgar returns, George reluctantly agrees to introduce his best friend to his girl friend, and is chagrined to see that Elizabeth is immediately attracted to Edgar. Although Edgar invites them to attend the races the next day, George insists he has to work, and Elizabeth reluctantly declines. When Edgar does not show up for work the next day, George's suspicions are aroused when he telephones Elizabeth's apartment and discovers that she is not at home. George then goes to the restaurant that he and Elizabeth used to frequent and sees Edgar and Elizabeth there together. Having lost the love of his life, George warns Edgar that he will never forgive him if he hurts her. That night, George meets a drunken Edgar at a pub, where Edgar announces his engagement to Elizabeth. George angrily proffers Elizabeth's apartment key and calls her a tramp. Edgar strikes George and draws blood. After the bartender pulls them apart, Edgar leaves, angrily repeating George's insult about Elizabeth. When Edgar returns home the next morning, he does not remember where he has been, but George reads in the newspaper that Elizabeth was found murdered, and notices blood on Edgar's hands and coat. George then accuses Edgar of killing Elizabeth. Edgar wants to contact the police, but George insists they agree on an alibi for Edgar first, and puts Edgar's coat in the oven fire. Scotland Yard Inspector Acheson and Sgt. Mallot arrive shortly afterward to question them, and leave without suspicion. That night, Edgar accuses George of killing Elizabeth, having now recalled that Elizabeth's apartment key dropped onto a table before he left the pub, and that the blood on his hands and coat was from the blow he dealt George. Edgar telephones the police, but when he attempts to stop George from escaping through a window, George strikes him and pushes him to his death. With the police now at his door, George cries out in false alarm, pretending that Edgar jumped. George later admits that he lied during his first interview with the police because he thought the police would blame Edgar due to his blackouts. Although Mallot finds the key and the remains of Edgar's coat in the stove, George is cleared of any suspicion. When George later visits his favorite bar, the friendly bartender Harry notices that he has included in his tip the heirloom bracelet he had given Elizabeth. Harry then calls the police.
During a heated debate in the House of Parliament, the British Prime Minister sends for Foreign Secretary Lord Mountdrago to combat a verbal assault by opposition member Owen, a Welsh man-of-the-people. In his offensive, Mountdrago ridicules Owen's speech as mere "hot air." Owen is devastated by Mountdrago's vicious attack and vows to crush his spirit. That night, Mountdrago dreams of being mocked at a party because he is wearing only underwear. The next day, Owen gazes pointedly at Mountdrago and laughs as he passes him in the hallway. When Mountdrago falls asleep while working late in his office, he dreams that he inexplicably bursts into the song "Daisy Bell" in Parliament, until Owen calls for his resignation. A now disturbed Mountdrago nevertheless completes his speech the next day, but becomes nervous when Owen denounces an alliance he is promoting by using a phrase from "Daisy Bell." When medications fail to quell Mountdrago's nightmares, his wife Elizabeth sends him to psychoanalyst Dr. J. Audlin, who believes that Mountdrago suffers from a guilty conscience over damaging Owen's career. Mountdrago stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his guilt, and later dreams that he is misbehaving at a nightclub and hits Owen on the head with a champagne bottle. Both Mountdrago and Owen then awaken from naps on opposite sides of a settee, and Owen remarks that he feels as if he had been hit on the head with a champagne bottle. Mountdrago concludes that Owen is somehow planting the nightmares in his head, and that he physically experiences what Mountdrago dreams. The next night, Mountdrago purposely dreams that he is pushing Owen in front of an oncoming train. He awakens refreshed and apologizes to his wife for his recent distracted behavior. Upon arriving at the House, Mountdrago smugly observes that Owen's seat is empty. Elizabeth, meanwhile, consults with Audlin who reveals that Mountdrago is no longer fit to conduct matters of state. Audlin and Elizabeth rush to Parliament, where Mountdrago has gone mad after hearing Owen's disembodied laughter. When he flees from the House, Mountdrago falls down a flight of stairs as if he has been pushed. After Audlin and Mountdrago's assistant Charles find him, Mountdrago admits that he killed Owen but heard the dead man laughing at him in the House. Charles then reveals that Owen's body was found in a railway tunnel that morning. Mountdrago realizes he has not escaped his persecutor, and dies.