Gregor Maclean, an eminent psychiatrist, is called out in the small hours by a patient, terrified that her husband, a drug and drink addict, is going to murder their children. When the psychiatrist arrives, the husband, Craigie Dewar, is cutting his dog’s throat in front of his two children. Maclean overpowers Dewar, a well-known poet and novelist, and when he recovers, tries to persuade him to have treatment or lose his wife and children permanently.
To his surprise, Dewar enrolls as a patient, though he seems bent on frustrating Maclean’s attempts to treat him. Instead, he starts using the psychiatrist’s own dialectic to challenge and interrogate him. Maclean begins to wonder who is analyzing whom; for despite his resistance, he finds the poet-novelist is exposing old wounds that his psyche had papered over.
Playing on Maclean’s weakness as a reformed drunk, Dewar cunningly forces him to resurrect his nightmarish weeks in a drying-out clinic where they all but killed him with aversion therapy. He tempts Maclean to swallow that one drink that will damn him for good.
Maclean finds himself reliving the trauma of his youth, his inadequacy, the jealousy that led him to kill his wife then make a botched suicide attempt Yet he is fascinated by Dewar, the Gorbals slum boy who is destroying himself and squandering his gifts as a writer through paranoiac and schizoid behavior. Even though sensing the writer is baiting him to revenge the wrongs he thinks he has suffered, Maclean strives to prevent Dewar’s self-destruction.
When he finally discovers how Dewar has probed all his personal secrets and is using them as a form of psychiatric blackmail, the psychiatrist and his patient are embroiled in a life-and-death duel.
Dewar schemes to bring their conflict to a head by arranging a Thames boat trip and a picnic beside the cottage Maclean had shared with his wife. He wants nothing less than a full confession about how the psychiatrist killed his wife and passed it off as an accident. He takes Maclean and the woman he now loves along the accident route driving as though he means to kill them at the fatal spot. Maclean only just manages to stop him.
It is Dewar who dies in a spectacular car crash. An accident, concludes the coroner. But the poet had left Maclean papers and a diary to prove it was suicide. There, he also confesses how he had set out to destroy the psychiatrist by holding up the cracked mirror of his own past, by taunting him with his hidden guilt, by wringing a humiliating avowal out of him. Yet, it was he who fell victim to his own scheme; by sharing his ego with Maclean, he discovered his hatred for revenge had evaporated. Maclean suppresses the truth in the diaries and lies to Dewar’s widow, claiming it was really an accident.


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