The late Roger Ebert called it the “Stanton-Walsh Rule”. Any movie “featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M.Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can’t be altogether bad”.
I’ve always liked Walsh as a character actor. But it was only when I recently re-watched the Cohen Bother’s Blood Simple after many year, that I realised just how on the money Ebert was.
Walsh plays a seedy PI called Loren Visser. Visser hired by a rich Texan bar owner, Julian (Dan Hedaya), to kill his wife, Abby (a very young Francis McDormand), who is cheating with one of Julian’s employees, Ray (John Getz).
If you haven’t seen Blood Simple, it won’t spoil your viewing pleasure too much if I tell you Visser kills Julian, tries to frame Abbey for the murder, and all manner of hell is unleashed.
On one level, Blood Simple comes across as a fairly standard small town film noir. Characters chase their own shadows and do very bad things in an effort to extract themselves from an increasingly fraught and dangerous situation.
What really raises it about the pack of similar films is the Cohen brother’s signature brand of dark weirdness, which managers to be both restrained and shocking. There’s a fair bit of violence (the title Blood Simple is taken from a phrase in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest to describe the addled and fearful mindset of individuals emerging from a violent situation). Someone gets buried alive and Visser ends up chasing Abby around Ray’s apartment at night, a scene that strangely reminded me of the final moments of Blade Runner.
Walsh totally owns this film. Clad in his cowboy hat and cheap beige leisure suit, he imbues Visser with a sick, sweaty reptilian sleaze. It’s a master class in how to do a down at heel, doublecrossing PI. He also gets all the best dialogue, including the last line of the film, uttered as he lies mortally wounded on a bathroom floor.
It’s the second time recently I’ve been struck by how good a character Walsh is.
The other was his turn as Dustin Hoffman’s ball breaking parole officer in the terrific 1978 film, Straight Time. Based on the No Best So Fierce, by real life con Edward Bunker (who has a small role in the film), I love everything about this film, the script, the down at heel late seventies feel and the cast.
Straight Time has a real tension to it, in large part derived from Hoffman’s attempt to stay out of prison and on the right side of Walsh’s character. Interestingly, Harry Dean Stanton, the other half of Ebert’s rule, has an excellent role in Straight Time as Hoffman’s offsider in an ill-fated jewelry store heist.
Other great Walsh performances include Bryan, Deckard’s cold-blooded boss in Blade Runner, and his role as Sergeant Sanger along side James Woods in the little known 1982 movie, Fast Walking, about a prison guard who finds himself the subject of unwanted demands by both the Klan and a group of Black radicals, when a radical black nationalist is transferred into the jail.
Maybe now I need to check out Harry Dean Stanton’s films a bit more?