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Just before Christmas, discharged Marine Jud Carney arrives in Los Angeles, where he takes a room in a Hollywood boardinghouse run by landlord Fred Hornkel. Fred, who prides himself on his "homelike" residence, introduces Jud as his nephew to the other boarders, who include mortician Vincent Barber, used car salesman Salvadore Javelli, schoolteacher Kathy, fading beauty Shirley Simon, sometime writer Bill Arness and a bickering married couple, Kitty and Dave. Although Jud attempts to join in the festive holiday mood, he finds the constant chatter and noise grating, prompting him to remember traumatic incidents he experienced during the Vietnam War, including the death of a friend who was shot in the back while standing next to Jud. Sensing Jud's unease, Shirley invites him out, but he declines only to accept Bill's invitation to a basketball game. While driving away with Jud, Bill confesses he has no game tickets and instead takes Jud to a strip joint. Neither man is drawn to the show, however, and when Jud abruptly leaves, Bill follows and suggests they go to a nearby, quiet café instead. After settling down over coffee, Bill admits he feels useless as he lives off a trust and cannot decide what to do with his life. Later, Bill spots two women friends, Betty and Sunny, and introduces them to Jud, before departing with Betty. Sunny tells Jud she has a car and asks him to drive them to the beach. There the couple has sex, but Jud wanders away, unmoved. Walking back to the boardinghouse, Jud is annoyed when he is questioned by the police and laughs when they caution him that it is not safe to wander the streets alone. Upon arriving back at his room, Jud is irritated when Shirley walks in bearing a bottle of wine and suggesting she would happily spend the night with him. Jud firmly refuses, angering Shirley. The next morning, Jud goes to Sal's car lot and insists on purchasing a convertible sports car for a cost far below Sal's recommended price. Cowed, Sal agrees and, pleased by his new freedom, Jud spends the day driving around the city. That evening at a café, Jud runs into former Marine buddy Ben, who asks Jud about his girl friend. Jud confesses that his girl friend sent him a letter while he was still in Vietnam, announcing her marriage to another man. Ben expresses sympathy, but noting Jud's distracted mood, advises him to work his way through his memories and move on. While the men are talking, Jud notices a young woman in a booth nearby who reminds him of his ex-girl friend. Offended by Jud's stare, the girl's boyfriend, an African American, approaches Jud to demand if he has a problem with the interracial relationship. Initially puzzled, Jud ignores the man, who then threatens him. Ben, who is also black, attempts to intervene, but the man again angrily challenges Jud, then strikes him. Infuriated, Jud beats the man severely, then dashes away as a police car arrives. The police chase Jud throughout the city, but he finally manages to evade them and returns to the boardinghouse. Fred meets Jud at the door and spotting his bloodied fists, offers to talk with him, but Jud refuses. Jud tries to sleep, but is plagued by nightmares of the war and the day's events and wakes up screaming. Next door, Vincent overhears Jud and asks if he can help. Jud agrees to have coffee with Vincent, who admits that his mortician job has left him afraid of death. The next morning, Fred walks into Jud's room ostensibly to repair his bathroom pipes, but in reality to listen to the continued quarreling by Kitty and Dave next door. Jud furiously demands that Fred has no right to be in his room and when the landlord again suggests Jud needs to talk to people and make friends, Jud angrily claims he will associate with whom he pleases. Jud then goes to a nearby bowling alley and is unsettled when Bill approaches him there. Bill talks about the night with Betty and makes several suggestions about Jud joining him for another date, but Jud soon departs alone. Driving away, Jud spots Kathy on the sidewalk and offers her a ride. She accompanies him to the vast veteran's cemetery and when Jud rages against the injustice of war and the infidelity of his ex-girl friend, she kindly counsels him to get on with his life. When Kathy asks him when he last looked into a child's face, he reflects on a dead Vietnamese child killed by his squad. Kathy spends the day with Jud, walking along the beach and talking. The next day Jud goes to Kathy's school where the sight of the children revives the memory of his squad demolishing a Vietnamese village and afterward discovering only women and children victims. Kathy joins Jud and although acknowledging her good intentions, Jud tells her that he does not want advice from anyone. Jud spends the rest of the day and evening alone wandering Los Angeles on foot. Returning to his room that night, Jud is disconcerted to find Bill waiting for him. When Bill hesitantly admits he needs a friend and is attracted to Jud, Jud rejects him and departs. Despairing, Bill weeps and then begins tearing apart Jud's room. Overhearing the commotion, Kathy enters the room and is shocked when Bill grabs her roughly, then throws her aside. Continuing to wreck Jud's room, Bill discovers Jud's pistol and abruptly turns it on himself just as Jud returns to the room. Stunned and dismayed, Jud drives away and as dawn breaks, pulls over to the side of the road where he screams in anguish.