Sergio Leone, more than any other filmmaker, is the guy who elevated the western shootout to an artform. And the climax of his most famous film is justifiably one of his most famous pieces. The players are Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef, each with a gun, and each hoping to escape with the gold that drives the movie's plot. The three men face each other in a very long standoff, one that stretches what film can do with regards to maintaining suspense and tension simply through manipulating images–in short, it's a work of art.
Ballet of Blood, "The Wild Bunch"
Peckinpah's rough and tumble western classic "The Wild Bunch" have ever set foot anywhere near a ballet, let alone participated in one. But the way the blood and bullets fly, in elegant, artistic slow motion, reminds many viewers of ballet. Just a really violent ballet.
We See What's In The Coffin, "
In some ways, Franco Nero's "Django" is the quintessential spaghetti-western hero–he doesn't talk much, and he can kill pretty much anybody. Probably the most impressive shootout in the movie is when we finally learn what's in that coffin he inexplicably drags everywhere with him. Spoiler alert: It's a machine gun.
Shotgun Toss, "Rio Bravo"
Before guys like Leone and Peckinpah changed what western shootouts could be, they were often lightning-fast affairs, over before the viewer even knows what hits him. That's the case in a terrific scene in Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo," but the scene in which Angie Dickinson helps Ricky Nelson shoot it out with the bad guys is still as exciting as they come.
Incident At The Bridge, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"
Excitement isn't the only the only goal of a western shootout. Take Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"–the sequence in which an intimidating mercenary blows away poor, innocent Keith Carradine just for standing in his way isn't supposed to be fun, but terrifying. And it definitely is.
Final Duel, "Once Upon A Time in the West"
We end where we began, with spaghetti western legend Sergio Leone. His famous skill at putting together western shootouts is pushed to its maximum potential in "Once Upon A Time in the West," in the sequence in which villain Henry Fonda and hero Charles Bronson finally meet, pistols in hand. Ennio Morricone's searing, wailing electric guitar and harmonica crystallize perfectly as we finally see the completion of a recurring flashback sequence showing just why Bronson has to kill Fonda, followed by him doing just that. If reading this doesn't give you goosebumps, you obviously haven't seen the movie yet.