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Mr. Movie: Remembering M. Emmett Walsh

Roger Ebert called him “The Poet of Sleaze.” When Emmett Walsh appeared on the scene, usually something dreadful was about to happen to someone. Not exactly a matinee idol, but that rubbery face could do lots of tricks. 


Walsh appeared in over 250 movies and TV shows. He never seemed to find a role he didn’t like or couldn’t play. He went to that great casting call in the sky at 88 last March. Mr. Movie now attempts to dig out the best of Mr. Walsh.


One of my favorite Walsh roles is in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984). Walsh is wonderfully crooked as private detective Loren Visser. The plot twists and turns around bar owner Marty, his unfaithful wife Abby and his double-crossing bartender Ray. Visser manages to keep everyone at each other’s throats with doctored pictures and the burial alive of poor Marty. His attempt to kill Abby is thwarted by her as she nails him with a knife and them shoots him through a bathroom door. Thinking he is the now, she yells to Visser she is not afraid of Marty. Visser responds. “Well, if I see him ma’am, I’ll sure give him the message.”


In Straight Time (1978), Dustin Hoffman plays recently paroled thief Max Dembo. He wants to go straight, start a new life. Unfortunately, his parole officer is the extremely sleazy Earl Frank (Walsh). Frank is determined to send Max back to prison by fair means or foul and eventually forces the issue to the point that Max returns to a life of crime.


Al Pacino is Serpico (1973), an honest NYPD cop who wants to reveal the corruption in the police force. Foiled by his superiors, including Chief Gallagher (the always dependendably crooked Walsh), he goes to the New York Times. That does the trick, but endangers the career and the life of Serpico.


Steve Martin plays Navin Johnson, The Jerk (1979), the white adopted son of poor black sharecroppers (just go with it!). He can’t understand why he has no rhythm and why everything he tries goes wrong. A madman (Emmett Walsh) picks Navin’s name out a phone book and decides to kill him. Luckily, the movie proceeds apace. The transformed madman later helps Navin. Or maybe not.


Water is the coin of the realm in The Milagro Beanfield War (1980). A crooked developer seeks to build a massive resort colony in New Mexico which will completely deplete the water needed to irrigate the crops in the area. There’s lots of dirty doings and bribery, both open and clandestine. The whole thing is brought to a halt by the Governor (Walsh), restoring the water to the farmers. Well, he couldn’t always be the bad guy!


Interesting snippets of Walsh can be found in Brubaker (1980), Silkwood (1983) and most recently in Knives Out (2019).


All of the movies in this article are available somewhere. All are for grown-ups.