A distant figure on horseback rides through shimmering, midday heat. He's nearer now, a bearded man in a dark cowboy hat and long dusty overcoat--the Stranger (Clint Eastwood
The Stranger enters the tiny western town of Lago and rides slowly down the main street. The townspeople stop and watch him pass. Freighter Jake Ross (John Quade
) cracks a bullwhip to wake his team of horses. The Stranger, startled, snaps his head around at the source before riding on.
The Stranger leaves his horse at the livery stable and walks to the saloon. On the front porch three armed, tough-looking men watch him enter: Bill Borders (Scott Walker
), Tommy Morris (James Gosa
), and Fred Short (Russ McCubbin
). The Stranger exchanges looks with Borders and enters the saloon.
From the end of the bar farthest from some locals, he orders a "beer and a bottle" from saloon keeper Lutie Naylor (Paul Brinegar
). The three men who were on the porch enter and take positions around him. Borders says, "Flea-bitten range bums don't usually stop in Lago. Life here's a little too quick for 'em. Maybe you think you're fast enough to keep up with us, huh?" Everyone freezes, waiting for the Stranger's reaction. He suddenly reaches for the whiskey bottle, scattering the local town folk, and causing the three tough men to tense. As he leaves, he whispers, "I'm faster than you'll ever live to be,"
He walks across the street to the barber shop, whiskey bottle in hand, and pays for a shave and a hot bath. He hangs his overcoat and gun belt on a coat rack. The barber (William O'Connell
) seats him, drapes him with a smock, and nervously applies shaving cream to his face. The three toughs enter and resume taunting him. The Stranger ignores them, irritating Borders, who suddenly spins the chair. The Stranger shoots Borders in the forehead with a gun hidden under the smock. He then shoots Morris and Short before they can react.
He stands and removes the shaving cream with the smock. He puts on his gun belt, replacing a wooden gun stock in the holster with his smoking gun. He steps outside, where the stunned townspeople are creeping over to view the carnage. A dwarf, Mordecai (Billy Curtis
), gives him a cigar and offers a light, asking, "What did you say your name was, again?" The Stranger replies, "I didn't."
The Stranger walks toward the stable. Callie Travers (Mariana Hill
), a young woman of unknown background, purposefully collides with him. The shoulder of her sleeve is ripped, and she berates him for it. He tells her there's no reason to make a fuss, that she could have asked if she wanted to get acquainted. She angrily insults and repeatedly provokes him. He tries to leave, but she grabs him and insults him again. He returns her insults. She tells him he has "the manners of a goat" and slaps the cigar from his mouth. Pushed too far, he tells her, "You're the one that could use a lesson in manners," and drags her, screaming, into the stable. He throws her onto the loose hay and rapes her.
The Stranger walks back past the barber shop where townsmen remove the dead bodies left by the stranger and clean up the barbers shop. They stop and watch him pass. He enters "Belding's Hotel" and finds the owner, Lewis Belding (Ted Hartley
), at the desk. The Stranger says, "Room." Belding gives him a key, reminding him to sign the register. The stranger merely looks at him and goes upstairs to his room. In the room, he wedges a chair under the doorknob, takes a gulp of whiskey, and lays down to sleep.
In a dream, a bloodied man (Buddy Van Horn
) lays in the same position as the sleeping Stranger. The man who is wearing a badge is being whipped in the street by three men. It is dark, but the silhouettes of those watching are clearly the townspeople. The three men whipping him are not shown. The bloody man asks the townspeople for help, but receives none. As he passes out, he says, "Damn you all to hell." The stranger wakes from the dream.
The next morning, the Stranger wakes and goes to the barber shop. He asks for his bath which the barber, instantly nervous, orders Mordecai to prepare in the back room. The trembling barber nicks the man he is shaving, Sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes
), shoos him away. Sam waits until the Stranger has settled into his bath, then asks if he can sit down to talk. Trapped, the Stranger reluctantly gestures that Sam may join him. Sam says that Borders was not a loved man and there will be no charges filed.
Callie Travers, who The Stranger had raped in the stable, enters the tub room with a revolver, says "You dirty bastard!," and shoots at the Stranger, who slides under the water. Sam wrestles her for the gun and, as he drags her out, instructs Mordecai to tell the Stranger not to leave town until Sam talks to him. After they're gone, the Stranger comes up for air and says, "I wonder why it took her so long to get mad." Mordecai, who witnessed the rape, responds, "Because maybe you didn't go back for more."
In a backroom of the mining office, the prominent men in town are meeting: Mayor Hobart (Stefan Gierasch
) of the general store, Dave Drake (Mitchell Ryan
) and Morgan Allen (Jack Ging
) of the mining company, the undertaker (Richard Bull
), the gunsmith (Reed Cruikshanks
), hotelier Belding, saloonkeeper Naylor, freighter Ross, and the preacher (Robert Donner
). They have learned that Stacey Bridges and his cousins, the Carlin brothers, are to be released from prison that day. These three have sworn to burn the town to the ground. The group was counting on the mining company's hired gunfighters--Borders, Morris, and Short--to defend the town, but The Stranger killed them. Now, they are considering hiring the Stranger. Belding and the preacher don't like it, but the rest are in favor.
The meeting is interrupted by Sam entering with still angry Callie in tow. Sam tells them about Callie's shooting outburst. Morgan Allen, her lover, tells her to be patient. Callie says, "Isn't forcible rape in broad daylight a misdemeanor in this town?" Allen tells her they need to avoid hysterics. She refers to hysterics not too long ago and spits on him, loudly questioning the manhood of the townsmen.
Sam finds the Stranger eating at the hotel and tries to persuade him to defend the town. He says Bridges and the Carlins were troubleshooters for the mining company who were bullying townspeople before being convicted of stealing gold from the mining office. The Stranger suggests they were railroaded, and Sam admits that's why they are mad at the town. The Stranger says Sam can handle it. Sam replies, "I'm no law man", adding that his predecessor, Marshal Jim Duncan, was whipped to death in the street by outsiders. More pleading, then Sam says, "This is a God-fearing town. These are God-fearing people." The Stranger replies, "You like 'em. You save 'em." Desperate, Sam says, "Look, what if we offered you anything you want?" The Stranger stops in his tracks, turns, and asks, "Anything?"
In Hobart's store, the mayor and Sam explain that the Stranger "has a free hand in this town," that he can have anything he wants in the town, "even if it's a squaw or a Mex to keep your bed warm at night," and that, as far as preparing the ambush, everyone is ready to follow his orders. The Stranger pockets a handful of cigars. He gives two Indian children each a jar of candy and gives a stack of blankets to an old Indian man Hobart has just scolded for touching the merchandise. On the way out, he encounters Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom
), Lewis's wife, who served his meal earlier and caught his eye. He repeats, "Anything I want."
The Stranger visits the boot maker (John Hillerman
) and takes many items, for which Sam says there is "no charge." He does the same at the leather maker (Jack Kosslyn
's) shop. A number of townsmen follow him, carrying his booty. He leads them to the saloon where he orders a round on the house for everyone who's following him. When Naylor complains, Sam delights in saying "Everyone's got to put something in the kitty." Hearing this, The Stranger removes Sam's badge and pins it on Mordecai. Mayor Hobart snickers. The Stranger removes Hobart's hat and puts it on Mordecai's head, making him both sheriff and mayor. Mordecai is thrilled.
At the gunsmith shop, Mordecai selects a huge revolver since he "can't be sheriff without a gun." The Stranger informs the townsmen they are now part of the "City of Lago Volunteers", tells the gunsmith to give each man a rifle, and orders everyone to report to the street for drills.
At the territorial prison, Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis
), Dan Carlin (Dan Vadis
), and Cole Carlin (Anthony James
) are released, and their gun belts returned. The jailer claims their horses were used for food, so they face a long walk. Dan says, "Drake and Allen don't seem to have remembered." Stacey replies, "One way or another, they'll remember."
In Lago, the "volunteer" townsmen take shooting positions on the roofs of the taller buildings, while the Stranger watches from a central walkway. Sam and Mordecai gallop through town on Ross's wagon, pulling a trailer loaded with three stuffed dummies on saw horses. The townsmen rain gunfire on the dummies, but score no hits. The Stranger mutters, "Shit."
Ross approaches the Stranger from behind, holding a knife, and says, "I don't remember lending my wagons to be shot up." Without looking back, the Stranger says, "You're gonna look pretty silly with that knife sticking up your ass." He draws and fires four shots, beheading each dummy and knocking off Mordecai's hat. He holsters his gun and says, "You still here?" Ross replies, "No, I was just going." Sam and Mordecai are excited about the shooting display, Sam saying, "This is going to be a picnic." The Stranger tells them to keep the men practicing.
The Stranger asks two Mexican laborers to use lumber from Belding's barn to build picnic tables. When Naylor, who overheard, questions the picnic, he's told he is furnishing the beer and whiskey. Belding arrives. The Stranger overrules his objection to his barn being torn down, and tells him to provide 35 bedsheets for the picnic. Mordecai, the Stranger's new sidekick, says they also need someone to provide a barbecued steer and 200 gallons of red paint. Finally, the Stranger orders Belding to get everyone out of his hotel. Flabbergasted, Belding asks where his live-ins are supposed to go. The Stranger replies, "Out."
Bridges and the Carlins come across three men camping. They shoot them and steal their horses and clothes. Now, instead of walking, they are riding at full gallop.
At the mining office, Allen and Belding suggest to Drake that hiring the Stranger was a mistake. They argue that convicts always threaten revenge but rarely carry through, and complain that the Stranger's crazy orders have the townspeople turning on one another. Drake wants to wait a few days to be sure. The discussion is heated, and reveals that the townspeople, in addition to Bridges and the Carlins, had a hand in Marshal Duncan's death, or as Drake puts it, "One hang, we all hang." Drake refuses to budge and Allen storms out.
At the hotel, the evicted guests are leaving, and Belding and the preacher are outraged. The preacher complains to the Stranger but gets nowhere. Sarah reports the readiness of the Stranger's connecting rooms, "The best in the hotel. One for entertaining and one for sleeping...if your conscience lets you sleep." The Stranger replies, "I sleep just fine, Ma'am. Care to see for yourself?" Sarah leaves in a huff. The Stranger tells Belding he wants fried chicken for dinner with the best bottle of wine in town, then leaves. Mordecai giggles and, when the angry Belding swipes at him, dives under the raised walkway.
Under the walkway, Mordecai has a flashback to the night of Marshal Duncan's whipping which he viewed from this same position. The whippers are Bridges and the Carlins. As in the Stranger's dream, the townspeople just watch. The exception is Sarah, who tries to stop it, but is restrained by Lewis.
In Callie's bedroom, the Stranger enters while Callie is brushing her hair. She gets a gun from the dresser, but he grabs her wrist and controls it. He tells her he wants her company at dinner. She calls him an animal and says she doesn't eat with dogs. He says, "You might if it's the dog that runs the pack." She lets him kiss her and take the gun. She says she needs half an hour to get ready. He returns the gun and leaves.
At the hotel, Sarah is serving Callie and the Stranger dinner. She asks, "Do you have any special request for dessert?" The Stranger looks at Callie and says, "No, I've already taken care of that." Callie smiles. Sarah leaves, disgusted.
In the hills, Cole's horse has come up lame, and he suggests they're pushing too hard. This angers Stacey, who says maybe they should leave Cole. Dan tries to calm Stacey, saying Cole can ride double with him. Stacey says, "When they find those bodies back there, they'll be a hunting party out for us, and I want time to take one year of my life out of Lago before we move on." They shoot the lame horse and ride on, slower now.
Allen and Ross meet Mordecai walking at night. He's been drinking. Allen knocks him cold with a left hook. They look up and watch the light go out in the Stranger's hotel room.
In the church, Belding speaks to the church-goers, including Drake. He complains that good people have been thrown out of his hotel, which is now being used for "fornication and sins of the flesh." He and Sam argue over who should step in. It gets caustic, and the preacher says, "Gentlemen, please! Look what's happening to us." Belding agrees, adding "It couldn't be worse if the devil himself had ridden right into Lago."
In his hotel room, the Stranger sleeps while Callie sneaks out of bed and gets dressed. Outside, Morgan Allen, Jake Ross, and three henchmen carefully ascend the hotel stairs, which creak anyway. Callie leaves the room and shuts the door, just as the men arrive. The men enter the room and beat the covered figure in bed with axe handles. The Stranger, on a ledge outside the window, lights a stick of dynamite and throws it onto the bed. The attackers see it and rush for the door, but only three escape before the room explodes.
Outside, the Stranger shoots two attackers as they retreat down the stairs, leaving only Allen, who ducks into the hotel lobby. The Stranger follows and finds Allen holding Sarah in front of him as a shield. As Allen backs away, the Stranger shoots his exposed shoulder. Allen falls backward to the floor, pulling Sarah down with him. Bleeding badly, he releases Sarah, and scrambles out the back door toward the barn.
In the barn, Allen mounts a horse and rides out. Callie pleads with him to take her with him, but he brushes her off and rides on. The Stranger has an easy shot at Callie, but lowers his gun, and she runs away into the darkness.
The townspeople arrive, having heard the blast. Upset at the damage to his hotel, Belding lets it slip that he knew about the attack. The Stranger hears and is unhappy. He orders the townsmen to begin digging graves, in the dark, for the four men killed. Drake assures the Stranger he had nothing to do with the attack and offers him a bonus to stick with the agreement. The Stranger doubles it, Drake agrees, and the Stranger turns and steps away. Belding whispers to Drake, questioning the large bonus. Drake whispers back, "Promising's one thing, paying's another. He might just catch a bullet." The Stranger says, "Oh, you and Lewis can grab shovels too."
The Stranger turns to Sarah, who says "I don't know where you're going to sleep now. All the rooms are ruined, except for our room." The Stranger looks at her and smirks. Sarah backs away, shaking her head. The Stranger takes her elbow and leads her into the hotel. She calls to Lewis for help. Lewis hears, but does not respond.
In the Belding's bedroom, Sarah grabs a pair of shears and backs into a corner. The Stranger lays on the bed, and asks what she is doing. She says she's defending herself, citing Callie's rape. The Stranger plays with her, recalling Callie enjoyed it, and acting as if Sarah wants the same. He says, "I'd like to oblige you, but a man's got to get his rest sometime." Sarah, angry at the suggestion, attacks him. He controls her, and forces her to kiss. She stops fighting and submits.
The next morning, they are relaxed with each other, Sarah in bed and the Stranger getting dressed. Sarah asks if he has heard of Jim Duncan, who lies in an unmarked grave, adding, "They say the dead don't rest without a marker." As he's leaving, she says, "Be careful. You're a man who makes people afraid and that's dangerous." He replies, "It's what people know about themselves, inside, that make them afraid."
At the cemetery, the townsmen are finishing up the four graves. The Stranger is painting something unseen on a sign. At the Strangers behest, Mordecai orders everyone to begin painting the town red. There is grumbling and disbelief, but no dissent. Naylor says, "I'll paint if you say we got to, but when we get done this place is gonna look like Hell." As the tired men tote their tools back to town, the sign is revealed. "Hell", in red, covers "Lago".
Lewis enters the Belding bedroom and tells Sarah there is an important meeting they should attend. She refuses, saying the neighbors make her sick. While defending the neighbors, Lewis reveals that Duncan was killed because he had discovered the mine was on government property and was determined to report it. The mine would be closed, ruining the town. He sees the murder as "the price of progress", but Sarah can't live with that anymore. She says, "I'm packing to leave, Lewis. I won't be coming back."
In the hills outside town, Bridges and the Carlins see Allen, near collapse, fall from his horse. Bridges sits him up and tries to persuade him to reveal the combination to the safe in the mining office. He promises that, in return, he'll move Allen into the shade and give him water. Allen curses him. Bridges threatens with a pointed stick, but Allen remains defiant. Bridges drives the stick into his neck, and says "Two sticks of dynamite will take care of that iron box. We don't need him."
A rifle shot ricochets near Dan's feet, and the three dive behind barely adequate cover. Unbeknownst to them, it's the Stranger, who had been tracking Allen by his blood droplets. Hidden on a ridge above, the Stranger lights a stick of dynamite, leaves it, and changes position. The dynamite explodes while Stacey is firing blindly up the hill, confusing the three, and showering them with debris. Then, from another direction, the Stranger shoots Cole's ear, and the three must hurriedly shift positions. Stacey figures it must be Drake and shouts out, seeking a parley. Getting no response, he fires more shots blindly, and there is another explosion, much closer this time. The three are shook up, filthy, and scratched from the blast. As they listen to the Stranger ride away, still unseen, Stacey screams, "I'll kill every man in Lago."
The Stranger rides back to Lago which is now completely red. He tells Mordecai, "The guests are on their way to the party." Mordecai runs down the street, lined with picnic tables, telling everyone to get ready. He finds the prominent men drinking in the saloon. They are scared and all need one more drink before reluctantly moving outside. The Stranger ties up at the hotel, and on his way in, tells the livery boy to get up in the church tower and ring the bell at the first sign of dust.
Bridges and the Carlins ride toward the town, down out of the hills now.
The Stranger exits the hotel, having retrieved his overcoat. He walks to the saloon and gets a drink. Sam and Naylor are anxious, wanting him to get ready outside, but he tells them there's plenty of time. Mordecai asks "What about after we do it? What do we do then?" The Stranger says, "Then you live with it."
They walk into the street and watch everyone take their positions. A "Welcome Home Boys" banner has been raised at the town's entrance. Mordecai asks, "When are you going to give the signal?" The Stranger replies, "I'm not. You are." The church bell begins ringing. The Stranger mounts his horse and rides calmly down the back road out of town. The townspeople watch in horror.
Bridges and the Carlins arrive, pausing when they see the banner. They draw their guns and gallop down the main street, whooping, shooting, and roping tables. Mordecai yells, "Fire!", but they all freeze or panic. Sam is roped and dragged over a collapsing table. Several rooftop gunners are shot or knocked back by splintering wood. The livery boy is shot out of the tower. Stacey catches Drake sneaking out of the mining office, backs him into the lake, and shoots him dead.
Later, after dark, the town is ablaze. The battered townspeople are in the saloon being roughed up by Stacey and Dan. Stacey beats Sam back onto a table, yelling, "A party?" Cole enters with Callie and throws her to the floor. She tries to convince Stacey she always loved him, but he's not buying it. Cole wants to know who ambushed them, and Stacey says, "We're going to find out right now." Then, a whip flies in over the swinging doors, wraps around Cole's neck, and drags him out, choking. The Stranger whips Cole to death in the street while Stacey, Dan, and the townspeople remain inside, stupefied by what they hear. Finally, the bloody whip is thrown into the saloon.
Stacey orders everyone out into the street where they gather around Cole's body. Stacey and Dan look for the whipper but see no one. Two sticks with lit fuses fly from behind a building and land near the body. The townspeople scatter, screaming "Dynamite!" When the fuses burn out, Stacey examines them and sees they are just sticks of wood. Dan tells Stacey the horses are gone. Stacey and Dan move down opposite sides of the street, guns drawn, searching for the whipper. A whip from above wraps around Dan's neck, lifts him, and hangs him dead from a balcony.
While Stacey is looking at Dan's body, a lantern is thrown into the street. Spooked, Stacey fires three times. While Stacey reloads, the Stranger's voice is heard whispering, "Help me, help me." The Stranger steps out in front of a burning building behind Stacey, who turns and sees only his silhouette. Stacey takes aim, but the Stranger draws and shoots Stacey's gun from his hand. Stacey yells, "Who are you?", and the Stranger shoots him dead.
Belding steps out from between buildings and aims a shotgun at the Stranger's back. A shot is fired and Belding falls over dead. Mordecai is revealed, holding his huge revolver. The Stranger nods and walks away.
The next morning, the Stranger rides down the smoldering street. Sarah, well dressed, is climbing aboard a buckboard. She and the Stranger exchange nods. The Stranger rides out to the cemetery where Mordecai is carving a grave marker. Mordecai says, "I never did know your name." The Stranger replies, "Yes, you do. Take care." As Mordecai watches him ride away, the marker is revealed-- "Marshall Jim Duncan, Rest In Peace."
In the distance, the Stranger disappears into the heat shimmer.