The story concerns an outlaw named Jim Stokes, commonly known as the "Two-Gun Man," who has been robbing stage coaches single-handed. The opening sequence quickly establishes a few points about Stokes: 1) when it comes to hold-ups, he relies on clever strategy as much as sheer nerve and fire-power to achieve his aims; 2) he fires his gun at an opponent only once, and wounds him rather than killing him; and 3) he's damn good at this. Stokes is the first of Hart's "good-bad men," and when he makes a run for it we find ourselves rooting for him to escape the law. He is wounded in his flight, and takes shelter at a shack with a prospector who -- wouldn't you know -- has a beautiful daughter, Nell (Clara Williams). Stokes' protectors are unaware of his identity, and as Nell nurses him back to health he reconsiders his way of life and decides to reform. He and Nell marry, and he goes into town to return his stolen money to the express company. In many of Hart's later films his bad guys (who were never truly villainous) would go straight under the influence of a good woman, and somehow he always makes this scenario feel plausible.
In town Stokes is recognized and captured by Sheriff Bud Walsh, who handcuffs him to a bed in an upstairs room over a saloon/gambling joint. The scenes in this saloon are rich in atmosphere, highlighted by an impressive camera shot, an extended pan across the expanse of the place that reveals the shabby decor, a couple of well-dressed dandies, some gamblers, a couple of hookers, a few Mexicans segregated in their own section, and other well-observed elements that give this milieu a taste of realism which later Hollywood Westerns could only aspire to. Bill Hart was there, and in his films you get the sense you're looking at frontier life as it was actually lived.
The scenes between Stokes and the sheriff point up another motif that would become familiar in Hart's work: just as Stokes isn't so bad as he seems at first, Sheriff Walsh isn't such a model of civic rectitude himself. While his prisoner is held captive in the room upstairs, the sheriff visits the gaming wheel and we come to realize the man has an addiction to gambling. When he loses all his own cash, Walsh dips into the express company money which was in his keeping, and when that is all gone the man is in serious trouble. Eventually, he and Stokes make a startling pact that benefits them both and leads to an ending that is both satisfying and uplifting, though not without its ethically dubious aspects.
I was fortunate enough to see this film at a recent screening at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and am pleased to note that it has been beautifully restored, and looks as good as any film of its age I've ever seen. William S. Hart's Westerns are among the real treasures of the silent screen, generally intense and often quite moving, and it's a pleasant surprise to find that his very first starring feature is among his best.