The opening is rather eye-popping. A young lady arrives at the hotel desk. She has to make her presence known to the desk clerk (tsk, tsk), but once he realizes that she is there to see Paladin, things kick into high gear. She watches, bemused, as he signals Hey Boy, who signals another member of the staff who is carrying iced champagne, and they head upstairs. Paladin is expecting her, and the clerk escorts her. All I could think of during this scene was a concubine being led in to the sultan.
The lady, Allison Windrom, has become acquainted with Paladin, although this is her first visit to his suite. Obviously Paladin (not to mention the staff) think that the relationship is about to shift to a more intimate level. Well, it is, but not the way Paladin had in mind. Allison's heading back home to New Orleans, and wants Paladin to come with her--her father has become involved in a duel, and being an old man who has not handled guns in 30 years, it would be flat-out murder. Paladin shifts from lover to businessman without a blink, and so does Allison--she already has his fee in her reticule.
Paladin rapidly comes to regret coming to New Orleans. The situation seems to have come about as the result of Mr. Beckley's attentions to Allison. Mr. Windrom had hustled Allison off to San Francisco to get her away from him. (Rather like plucking Allison from the frying pan and tossing her into the fire, had he but known.) Windrom is very proud of himself for having provoked a duel with a much younger man, and outraged at the thought of Paladin interfering. The duel, to be held on Friday at 5 am, will be a very intimate affair--no more than 40 or 50 of his dearest friends as witnesses. Windrom seems positive that Beckley will back down when it comes to the actual event. Paladin, who deals with the complexities of human nature on a daily basis, is quite certain that a proud young man would not back down in front of 40 or 50 people. He's for letting the old fool deal with the situation, but Allison, fearing for her father's safety, persuades him to try again.
Paladin presents himself at the Albatross Club (an ill-omened name--remember the Ancient Mariner?) and confronts Beckley. Although Paladin is soft-spoken and courteous, as always, Beckley treats the Westerner as something low-class. He will stop the duel--provided that Windrom apologize to him in public--which, of course, Windrom would never dream of doing. Windrom decides to take offense at Paladin, but is startled to realize that Paladin takes that to mean that he will take Windrom's place in the duel.
Windrom is outraged again, and Paladin is prepared to let the two idiots have at it again, and Allison persuades him otherwise--again. Learning that Beckely has hired his own proxy fighter, Paladin goes to see the man, Sledge (a fine performance by James Coburn). It doesn't take Paladin long to convince Sledge that this whole fight is over nothing at all--the men have decided that seeing blood spilt, even if it's not their own, will somehow vindicate their honor. Sledge and Paladin agree to make the duel a fistfight.
Meanwhile, back at the Albatross Club, the bets are flying, just as they would be in the West--the only difference is that it's done more quietly. Windrom and Beckley confront each other. At this point, Windrom is almost willing to lose the duel, just to get rid of this aggravating Paladin, who has no sense of honor. A few moments conversation serve to set aside the men's differences--but they are still going to allow the duel to take place. The man recording the bets informs the two that the duel must be called off--he has it on good authority that the fighters intend to make the duel a low, common brawl. (Sledge must have been talking in a saloon, because how else could anyone have found out?) Windrom and Beckley agree that the duel will take place with guns, whether the participants like it or not.
The night before the duel, Paladin stands out in the garden, no doubt reflecting on this total farce he had gotten tangled up in. Allison comes to him. It's all so romantic--the lovely young maiden, and the lonely gunfighter who might be dead this time tomorrow. It would be interesting to know just how far she intended to let the situation go. Unfortunately for her, Paladin is weary of the whole business, and knows darn well that Allison is letting herself be carried away by the situation, not the man.
The following morning, the site for the duel is laid out rather like a hunt breakfast--tables are set up with champage and other goodies, and a bunch of men ready for some good sport. Ladies should not be present at a duel, but Allison is there, in a coach, wearing a veil that does not obscure her features in the slightest. Sledge is in his ordinary attire, while Paladin, in black, has a very theatrical-looking cloak, presumably loaned by Windrom. Windrom coldly informs him that Sledge has been offered double the money to carry a gun. Seeing the truth of this, Paladin reluctantly agrees to carry his as well. The referee is horrified that they are not using proper dueling pistols--but a gun's a gun, after all. Coming face to face, Paladin and Sledge quickly realize that they've both been conned--Sledge had probably been told that Paladin was going to have a hidden gun. They agree that when they start to pace off, they will simply keep walking. Unfortunately, fate had something else in mind. The situation, twice referred to as a farce, changes with stunning abruptness. Seeing that the two men are simply walking away from the duel, Allison starts to get out of the coach. The clicking sound alerts the men, both trained gunfighters, both accustomed to kill-or-be-killed situations, and both react instinctively. Paladin reacts faster.
Exactly how this proves that Windrom is a better man than Beckley I cannot comprehend, and neither can Paladin. He looks around at the spectators--their party atmosphere turned into a shambles, and launches into a bitter diatribe, tearing their pretensions of honor into shreds before making a disgusted exit.
"Nasty, brutish, and short". One slight sound turns farce into tragedy. This episodes leaves you feeling like you've been punched in the gut.