Winter 1898. The rough weather brings hunger and privation to the small village of Snowhill in Utah. In order to survive, the poor people start to steal and rob. Therefore they become outlaws and have to hide in the mountains, because of the bounty rewarded on them. While people are suffering, the village becomes a paradise for bounty hunters, who can hardly be opposed by the poor, who are labelled as outlaws.
When Pauline's husband falls prey to the unscrupulous bounty hunter Loco (Klaus Kinski), she hires a mute gunfighter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to kill Loco. Since Silence as a child had to watch his parents being killed by bounty hunters, he tramps through the country chasing those who are killing people for money under the cloak of the law. In order to not violate the law and be added to the blacklist of the bounty hunters, he provokes them to pull out their weapon first. Then he has a reason to act in "self-defense" and shoot them.
But Loco does not let himself be provoked. Not until after he lures the new sheriff who had been given the impossible task by the governor to re-establish order in the region and to grant amnesty to the starving in the mountains to his death, does Loco face up to the final fight with Silence.
The film is famous for its bleak ending, a bloody scene in which the sympathetic characters are gunned down by the greedy bounty hunters, "all according to the law," as Loco comments. The director was forced to shoot an alternate ending for the North African and Asian markets where the hero's death in the end would have been deemed unacceptable.
The Fantoma DVD features the alternate "happy" ending without sound. The comic sheriff played by Frank Wolff returns from the "dead" (after having been trapped in a frozen lake by Loco) to save the day. It is unlikely that an English or Italian audio track was ever created for this ending.