Dexter Cornell, an English Professor, becomes embroiled in a series of murders involving people around him. Dexter has good reason to want to find the murderer but hasn't much time. He finds help and comfort from one of his students, Sydney Fuller.
An English professor is the prime suspect of being the one who killed his wife and one of his students because they were close. He later learns that he is also dying because someone gave him a slow acting poison. So he spends his last moments trying to find the one who killed him.
Dexter Cornell è un affermato docente di letteratura e riceve, in lettura, la bozza di un romanzo scritto da un suo allievo. Il testo è ben scritto ed interessante. Qualche giorno dopo, lo studente muore cadendo dal tetto dell'Università : omicidio o suicidio ? Il giorno dopo il professore si sente male e scopre di essere stato avvelenato con un veleno con un veleno che uccide lentamente : gli restano ventiquattro ore di vita per scoprire chi ha voluto la sua morte, non riesce a rendersene conto. Con l'aiuto di Sydney Fuller, una sua allieva, si mette ad indagare, ma sembra esserci una maledizione sopra di lui: diverse persone perdono la vita, accidentalmente o meno, e tutto sembra ricollegarsi alle sue vicissitudini. Alla fine, stremato ed in fin di vita, si reca al comando di polizia, dove racconta questa assurda storia e dove quasi non è creduto ; ma il colpevole viene scoperto : è Hal Petersham, il suo assistente, geloso ed invidioso del suo successo, che si è impadronito del romanzo dell'allievo per pubblicarlo a proprio nome, eliminando tutti quelli che sono a conoscenza della verità.
- In the opening scene (filmed in black and white) during an unseasonably balmy Christmas season, English professor Dexter "Dex" Cornell (Dennis Quaid) stumbles into a police station to report his own murder and describe the events of the past 36 hours....
In class, Dex's lecture is upstaged by his star pupil, Nicholas "Nick" Lang (Robert Knepper), a precocious intellectual who has just completed his first novel, 'Out of Whack.' Nick is desperate for Dex to read the manuscript, and claims his professor's feedback is a matter of life and death. However, Dex avoids the novel. He has been suffering writer's block for years, and the boy's talent reminds him of his own shortcomings. As Dex settles into his office and gives 'Out of Whack' an "A" grade without reading it, he is startled by the thud of a body crashing into the window, and realizes that Nick has thrown himself off the rooftop to commit suicide.
Shortly thereafter, Dex's colleague, Hal Petersham (Daniel Stern), comes to the office with a bottle of whiskey. He pours the liquor into a coffee mug and hands it to Dex, who tells him about Nick's troubled past. The boy's father tried to rob a tycoon named Mr. Fitzwaring, and both men were killed during the break in. Despite the tragedy, Mrs. Fitzwaring took pity on Nick and financed his college education. Dex decides to read 'Out of Whack' after all, and takes it home where his wife, Gail (Jane Kaczmarek), reminds him to sign their divorce papers. Dex wants to save the marriage, but Gail complains that he lost his integrity and his romantic vitality when he stopped writing. As Gail leaves, she chides Dex's apathy, and accuses him of exchanging alcohol for ambition. Dex fails to sign the divorce papers and returns to campus, where he unexpectedly reunites with Gail at the opening of the Fitzwaring Art Gallery.
When Mrs. Fitzwaring makes an inaugural speech that mourns Nick's death, Gail learns about the suicide, becomes ill, and is escorted home by Hal Petersham and his girl friend, Dr. Elaine Wells (Elizabeth Arden). Looking for more alcohol, Dex goes to the Continental Club and sits next to a young woman, unaware that she is Mrs. Fitzwaring's daughter, "Cookie." (Robin Johnson) As Cookie offers Dex a martini and starts to cry, a man named Bernard (Christopher Neame) drags her away, and Dex is spotted by one of his female students, Sydney Fuller (Meg Ryan). The girl is infatuated with Dex and encourages him to drink.
The next morning, Dex awakens in Sydney's dormitory bedroom and is relieved to learn their evening was platonic. Dex telephones Gail, and she confesses she once had an affair with Nick Lang. Unfazed, Dex declares his love, but Gail discourages him from coming home and finds Nick's novel, 'Out of Whack,' in his briefcase. As Dex hangs up the telephone, he is overcome with vertigo and goes to the hospital, where he discovers he has been poisoned with a lethal dosage of radium chloride. Dr. Elaine Wells declares that Dex ingested the chemical compound in an alcoholic beverage, and regrets he has one day to live.
Dex races home with renewed appreciation for life and reunites with Gail. However, she is hit over the head by an intruder and dies. Police arrive at the scene and notice Nick's 'Out of Whack' manuscript, burning in the fireplace. The detectives are aware of Gail's affair, and accuse Dex of murdering his wife to exact revenge. They reveal that Nick did not commit suicide, after all, and assume that Dex pushed his student off the roof.
As Dr. Elaine Wells tries to sedate Dex with an intravenous drug, he grabs the needle, threatens to hold her hostage, and escapes to Sydney's dormitory. He accuses the girl of poisoning him, but she insists she is innocent, and he loses consciousness. When Dex awakens, he explains his predicament, douses his hand in super glue, and grabs Sydney's wrist, creating a bond so she cannot get away.
After a series of false leads, the two go to Nick's funeral, where Dex recognizes Cookie Fitzwaring from the bar and realizes she was also Nick's lover. Dex corners Cookie and accuses her of poisoning his martini, but her mother's chauffeur, Bernard, comes to the girl's rescue. Dodging gunfire from an unseen assassin, Dex and Sydney run away, and Sydney is caught in an open elevator shaft. As she dangles from the conveyor, her skin rips away from Dex's hand and they escape together.
Dex sends Sydney home in a taxicab and goes to the Fitzwaring mansion, where he confronts Mrs. Fitzwaring (Charlotte Rampling) and Bernard in the horse stable. Just then, Cookie arrives and holds her mother at gunpoint, accusing her of killing Nick. In the ensuing commotion, Bernard knocks Dex unconscious and he comes to in the back seat of a car. Bernard drives Dex back to the university and they pick up Cookie, but the girl is drunk and out of control. Still, Dex is convinced of her innocence and pushes Bernard out the car door in an attempt to get away. Cookie takes over the steering wheel. Bernard jumps on the roof, but his gun misfires, accidentally shooting her dead. The car plummets into a tar pit and sinks while Bernard continues to fight. Dex throws him back into the muck, grabs his gun, and stumbles to a campus carnival. He is hassled by a crowd of impudent co-eds, but Sydney comes to his rescue, and they go back to his office to make love.
When Sydney falls asleep, Dex returns to the Fitzwaring mansion and confronts Mrs. Fitzwaring, who has just learned about her daughter's death and reveals the true story of her relationship with Nick. Mrs. Fitzwaring was once married to Nick's father, but she abandoned him after she gave birth to Nick, and secretly assumed a new identity as Mrs. Fitzwaring. Nick's father tracked her down at the mansion and revealed her ruse to Mr. Fitzwaring, who threatened to destroy her relationship with Cookie. Mrs. Fitzwaring murdered both men, and vowing to protect her secret, Bernard invented the story of the break-in. Mrs. Fitzwaring laments the loss of both children and commits suicide, making Dex a witness to yet another killing. Dex is enraged by the wasted lives, and his failure to identify the murderer.
Dex returns to his office and ransacks the bookshelves in a tantrum, then soothes himself with a drink from Hal's whiskey bottle. Remembering that Hal poured the liquor into a coffee mug before giving it to him on the afternoon of Nick's death, Dex telephones his friend and orders him to come to the office. When Hal arrives, he refuses to taste the whiskey and Dex realizes he is the killer. Hal explains his plans to publish Nick's novel under his own name. He was obliged to kill Gail, and poison Dex, because they knew about 'Out of Whack' and were likely to expose his deception. A fight ensues, and Dex shoots Hal in the chest. Hal plunges through the window to his death.
In the end, back at the police station (in black-and-white), Dex concludes his story to the investigating detectives. The final shot shows Dex walking out of the police station along a long hallway to meet his fate.
(One interpretation is that he might have died right there at the station and is walking down the station hallway to the light of Heaven.)