It starts oddly--in fact, considering how the rest of the story turns out, it's downright peculiar. On a dark and stormy night at the Carlton, Paladin, dressed in his private lounging attire, turns from the window to contemplate a woman lying at full length (ahem) on his sofa. Walking over, he asks her name, which she refuses to divulge. Paladin has been spending an unknown amount of time with this woman, and he doesn't know her name? He tells her that he has summoned her carriage (and how did he do that without her knowing?) The woman responds by saying "no" again--what did she mean by that? "No, I'm not leaving your suite" or "Even if you throw me out, I'm not telling you my name"? She pulls a small gun out from under her and orders him back to the window. Paladin informs her that the bullets have been removed (presumably whilst they were snuggling on the sofa). He goes on to say that if she looks in her purse, she'll find that she has no reason to be angry. Paladin's voice and expression here are very strange--he looks rather like he's expecting to get hit. He's given her a token to feed her appetite for pretty things--an expensive piece of jewelry, by which I assume that she is a jewel thief. Just when did he learn this, and when did he decide to present her with this token? Or does he keep chunks of jewelry in his suite to be doled out at intervals? He says that he couldn't bear the thought of her languishing in prison. (I suppose if she were less pretty, he'd march her off to jail without a second thought.) The woman is rather bemused, but says that it was a lovely evening. She's disconcerted when Paladin fastens her wrap about her and shows her to the door. He's willing to let a criminal go free, with an expensive trinket to boot, but apparently cavils at taking advantage of her. Are we to assume that this woman has been charmed into going on the straight and narrow? Seems unlikely. This woman is willing to use a gun. It might well be that her next victim could end up injured or killed. Paladin's behavior here is very foolish. Hey Girl seems to know exactly what was going on. Paladin's generosity (or idiocy) is given as the reason he's going to have to get back to work again. Hey Girl has already found an opportunity--a sheepherder named Joselito Kincaid stands accused of shooting one cowpuncher and causing a fire that burned two others to death. He's on the run, and Paladin is quickly in pursuit.
A couple quick scenes are sufficient to show Paladin tracking his quarry. Kincaid, found asleep, seems quite friendly and resigned to his capture--then nearly gets the better of Paladin. He didn't shove hard enough, however, and Paladin wings him in the arm. Kincaid clearly expects to be gunned down, but Paladin tends his wound instead. They arrive at Jody Town on a hot, windy evening. They comment on the wind--called the Devil's Breath by the Comanche. There are certain winds--the mistral and the foehn--known for the irritating effect they have on people, and I was surprised that they made no further mention of the wind as a possible excuse for what happens that night. It also seemed a little strange that Jody Town, parked directly beside a railroad line, is so shabby and half-dead, but apparently it's too far out of the way, even with regular trains. There's a quick, Marilyn Monroe moment, when a young woman who runs out to gawk at the strangers finds the wind blowing her skirts up in an unseemly fashion. Not seeing a jail along the tiny main street, Paladin goes into the local store-cum-saloon. Paladin makes a crashing blunder, expressing surprise that the town has a working telegraph station. After the friendly, philosophical storekeeper dryly puts him in his place, Paladin makes another one, asking if they have a lawman present, rather than asking who he is. Turns out the storekeeper is also the deputy sheriff. He has Paladin chain his prisoner in the store. Paladin sends telegrams, one to the sheriff looking for Kincaid, one to the man in charge of the next morning's train, requesting that it stop in Jody Town. The station man recognizes Kincaid's name, and seems greedily pleased at the information.
Paladin picks up a meal to go from the restaurant, naturally pausing to charm the young woman, Dot. Dot is curious about San Francisco, and more so about Paladin's prisoner, but Paladin, who has already seen how Osser, the station man, reacted, keeps silent. A group of cowpunchers comes in off the trail as he walks away. Dot effects indifference to the youngest and handsomest one, but it doesn't last long. Later, Kincaid is munching on a cracker out of the barrel, probably more from boredom than hunger, and chokes. After Paladin gives him water, he suggests buying a real drink--his treat. Considering that Paladin is getting a thousand dollars for his capture, he agrees to Paladin's counteroffer. Paladin is simply going to step over to the next room and bring back the drinks, but Kincaid wants a chance to stretch his legs. Paladin is agreeable--Kincaid's been behaving pretty well--and the night's drama is set in motion.
The young man, Roy, is nowhere to be seen, but his three friends are in the saloon. They have no money for a decent game of poker, there are no girls available, and here comes a stinking sheepherder accused of murdering three fellow cowpunchers. (The hatred towards sheep and the men who looked after them apparently stems from the fact that sheep graze down so far that the grass has a hard time growing back, leaving the land unfit for cattle. It would seem that keeping the livestock well separated would be the obvious thing to do, but that's logic for you.)Joe Culp speaks up and asks if Paladin will get his bounty if his prisoner is returned dead or alive. A dead silence falls over the room. Paladin says that he will--so why not just kill the man and be done with it? Paladin doesn't waste time explaining about due process--he just starts to leave the room. Culp makes a sneering comment about Heaven also hating sheepherders--apparently he's never heard of the Good Shepherd--and Paladin starts to swing at him. One of the men, Ben, shows himself to be a small and nasty sort--rather than let the men fight fairly, he pulls his gun--and notice that Culp does not tell him to butt out. Kincaid now shows himself to be an intelligent, insightful man--he points out that people seem to need someone to hate. Culp looks remarkably like another man he knew, of part Indian blood--not enough to be accepted as an Indian, but enough to make him a target for other people's contempt--unless, of course, he could find another target to focus people's hate on. This hits too close to home, and Paladin has to stand helpless at the point of Ben's gun, while Culp punches the defenceless prisoner. Culp decides that they will enliven the evening by hanging the sheepherder. Jory,
the third man, had planned to spend the rest of the
evening with the widow Hardin--an accomodating lady,
presumably--but is willing to put it off for a bit.
The deputy, behind the bar, finally takes a hand, demanding that Ben disarm, and Paladin reveals his little derringer, which Ben finds more threatening than the deputy's gun. Before returning to the store, Paladin takes the time to knock Culp down. Jory is certain that Culp will pay Paladin back for that. Apparently, he knows that Culp can dish it out, but can't take it.
Hours later, no one seems to have gone to bed. They all know that something is going to break loose. Kincaid claims that he gives back hate for hate, but it seems more like a contempt for those who hate blindly, and a courageous refusal to back down. The deputy wanders in, and asks if Kincaid committed the murders he's accused of. Kincaid shakes his head--but then goes on to present the reason the three men died--they had savagely burned alive 300 helpless sheep. A sound makes Paladin leap into battle stance. Dot, who has also not gone to bed, has been sent to tell them that if Kincaid is not handed over for them to hang, all three men will die. Naturally, Paladin will have none of this. Roy, who had not been involved at all, has joined his friends. Dot sees nothing wrong with her boyfriend helping to kill a man just to keep on friendly terms with three others. She is sent on her way. The deputy warns Paladin that three of the four man are dangerous--Ben, expectably, isn't considered much. Moments later, a firebomb crashes through the window, and as Paladin and the deputy work on the fire, Culp and Jory burst in and get the drop on them. Paladin is forced out the door while the deputy tends to the blaze, and Culp viciously clubs him down from behind, then cravenly smashes Paladin's gun hand, apparently not trusting that the four of them could keep Paladin out of it. (Not being able to perform this scene wearing his glasses seems to be the reason Sidney Pollack made things too realistic for comfort.)
Paladin regains conciousness a short time later, to find Dot, the deputy, and Osser all watching tensely--but without protest--as a noose is prepared. Paladin bellows that they don't even know the man they're planning to kill. Kincaid, knowing that he's about to die, contemptuous and courageous to the last, knows that they are killing him not for what he did, but for what he is--not just a sheepherder, but a man who recognizes and reflects back their senseless hate. He spits at Culp, twice, and Culp, appallingly, draws and shoots the unarmed, bound man. Paladin lurches to his feet, and Jory knocks down the unarmed, dazed and crippled gunfighter. Paladin struggles to keep concious, but finally slumps.
Some time later, he awakens and makes his way to Kincaid's body, left lying in the street. The deputy belatedly emerges, pleading that there was nothing he could have done. Well, at four to one, there was some truth to that. Paladin snatches the deputy's gun, and the deputy points out that Paladin had not been able to deal with Culp when he had two working hands, forgetting that Culp had not faced Paladin in fair fight. Paladin growls ominously that Culp should have killed him first.
The closing is interesting. After that powerful climax, it would have been bizarre to jump to Johnny Western's brisk and bouncy closing theme. Instead, the credits rolled over a silent replay of the penultimate scene. However, after the camera panned over the waiting onlookers, it remained in place, rather than switching to the other camera angle used in the episode. This not only made it look different, it allowed to viewers to see just how close Kincaid was standing next to Culp when he was gunned down--close enough that Culp could have responded by slapping or backhanding him, or even pistol-whipping him, rather than murdering him for a blob of spit.