The young pathologist David Coleman (Ben Gazzara) arrives to join a hospital pathology lab. He encounters disorganization and a hostile, cigar-smoking chief, Joe Pearson (Frederic March), who declares his intention to keep working until he dies. Coleman tries to implement a few changes, but his suggestions are overruled.

The film revolves around two cases: possible erythroblastosis in the child of an intern and his wife whose first child died; possible bone cancer in Coleman's girlfriend, student nurse Kathy Hunt (Ina Balin). The infant's problem is misdiagnosed due to Pearson's refusal to order the new Coombs' test recommended by Coleman; the baby nearly dies, alienating the obstetrician (Eddie Albert), a long time friend who now presses for Pearson's dismissal.

Coleman disagrees with Pearson, who thinks that Kathy's bone tumor is malignant, but he opts for professional discretion, defers to the chief, and urges her to have her leg amputated anyway. He discovers that Pearson had been right: the surgery, which he thought unnecessary, has provided her with her only chance of survival. Just as Coleman realizes the enormity of his error, he learns that Pearson has resigned and that he will take over the lab.


Narrated by Ronald Reagan, this film is an interesting exploration of pathology, an under-celebrated aspect of medical life. Keeping up with advances and adhering to established codes of professional ethics are loudly proclaimed as the recipe for success. The dilemma of disclosure and privilege when patients are the loved ones of professionals is a strong theme. The great emphasis on the now ubiquitous, simple, and inexpensive Coombs' test seems peculiar, but is historically instructive.

Grieving for his wife and trying tenaciously to cling forever to his job, Pearson's crustiness is diluted with glimmers of warmth and humor. Coleman's neophytic zeal softens--at the end, he even smokes in the lab! The hostility between the two men slowly resolves as they find mutual respect and vulnerability in this perfectly balanced and credibly portrayed drama of medical (and human) error.


Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey.

Primary Source

A Million and One World Wide Videos (1-800-849-7309; might be able to help obtain this film as a DVD or videotape.