The movie follows the story of Joe (a very young looking Clint Eastwood who demonstrates what is to become known as a life long gift for economy of emotion and speech), a mule riding loner who rides into the sleepy township of San Miguel and sets about using an existing gang rivalry to line his own pockets and ultimately free the town of its bloodthirsty overlords. Joe is a man of few words but these words tend to communicate more than their sum parts. Early in the piece, soon after he has arrived in town to an unfriendly welcome, Joe stands on the balcony of Silvanito's cantina ruminating on the makeup of the town. "The Baxters on one side and the Rojos on the other and me in the middle. A man could get rich in a town like this". So saying, the entire plotline of the film is laid out, with Joe playing one side against the other in turn until everyone is dead and his pockets are bulging.
Here was a new style of hero, as laconic and self reliant as his predecessors but with a cynicism and amorality that matched the contemporary mood of his 1960's audience. A hero whose speed and skill with a gun had reached a new and exaggerated level of artistry, and who was happy to utilize them in as cold and mercenary fashion as his villainous adversaries. Far from wearing a traditional white hat, his was decidedly dirty. In short, he was cool.