The Top 10 Villains of All-Time.

18 July, 2008

What makes a great villain? I’m sure everyone has a different answer. But for me, a great villain has to leap off the screen. You have to think for yourself, I would NEVER want to meet this person in real life. If not, the villain has to shake up your morals and ethics, so much so that you will never look at life the same way again. A great villain is more than just a bad guy; a great villain is a force of nature.

There are some iconic characters that didn’t make the cut, including Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, and Norman Bates. Not to dismiss these characters in any way but these are cartoons. I enjoy them, I respect them, I appreciate them but they don’t slap me in the face. They don’t shoot me like a diamond through the head. That’s more important to me than picking the P.C. choices. For similar reasons, Amon Goethe — the reprehensible Nazi from Schindler’s List — was omitted because, well, he’s a Nazi. Of course you’re going to despise him.

I also made the decision to ignore any and all anti-heroes no matter how beloved, including Travis Bickle, Alex DeLarge, Michael Corleone, Patrick Bateman, Tony Montana, and Jack Torrance. I feel we miss the point when we label these characters as villains, especially Bickle, who always appears on mainstream versions of this list. Likewise with Colonel Kurtz. And where’s Hannibal Lecter? Well, he’s not the villain of The Silence of the Lambs. The run-of-the-mill serial killer Buffalo Bill is.

Of course, many people are revising their lists already with Heath Ledger’s Joker, and that may very well be warranted, but until I see the film I have no right to judge. So without further ado, this is my current list of the best villains in cinema history.

10. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) – Se7en: His character name is appropriate. Se7en was a movie about serial killers and our morbid fixation with their minds. We’re all with the Brad Pitt character at first but when Doe finally opens up to the two cops (at 4:38), we suddenly find ourselves allied with the killer! We may not approve of his actions but we can’t deny the reality of everything he says. Suddenly the world doesn’t seem as simple anymore. When the film was released, most people didn’t know who Kevin Spacey was, making his performance all the more chilling and unforgettable. And he’s not even in most of the picture.

9. Cole Wilson (Lance Henriksen) – Dead Man: All we know about Cole Wilson at first is that he’s such a good killer that his status is legendary. Nothing special. Then Michael Wincott drops a bombshell: “He fucked his parents.” Because the actor is so funny, we laugh at first. But the more time we spend with Wilson, the more apparent his madness becomes. He will stop at nothing to collect the bounty on William Blake (Johnny Depp), and while the Native American Nobody (Gary Farmer) acts as Blake’s Guardian Angel, Cole Wilson is most certainly the Devil. Or something like it.

8. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) – Cape Fear: Robert De Niro’s grotesque and unintentionally funny interpretation of the role has nothing on Robert Mitchum’s subtle and sexually charged incarnation of Max Cady, an ex-convict with revenge on his mind. He represents everything that Gregory Peck and his all-American family fears, which may be too simplistic by today’s standards, but unlike Scorsese’s needlessly complex remake, the story serves as a great foil for Mitchum’s menacing Max Cady.

7. Frank McBain (Henry Fonda) – Once Upon a Time in the West: Part of this inclusion has to do with the most ingenious example of casting against type in film history. Henry Fonda was the ultimate nice guy during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In a career spanning literally over a hundred films, he never once played a bad guy…until Sergio Leone gave him a call. He approached Fonda because when bounty hunter Frank McBain shoots up an entire family at the beginning of the picture, and Morricone’s score swells and the camera spins around to reveal the culprit, he wanted everyone in the cinema to shout out, “Jesus Christ it’s Henry Fonda!” And that’s exactly what they did. One of Fonda’s finest performances without question.

6. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) – Blue Velvet: Talk about a comeback! It’s difficult to prepare yourself for Hopper’s performance no matter how much you hear about it. On the one hand, he is so over-the-top that at times you can’t help but laugh at him. On the other hand, it’s difficult to laugh when he’s sexually abusing Isabella Rossellini and threatening Kyle MacLaughlan’s life. Of course the spineless Academy would never recognize a performance this fearless so they copped out and nominated Hopper for Hoosiers instead. Nevertheless it’s his performance as Frank Booth that has lived on in film history. Incidentally Lynch originally had Booth inhaling helium so he sounded like Donald Duck, which didn’t quite work for Hopper, who changed it to the drug amyl nitrate. Thank God for that.

5. Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) – Gang of New York: The role that reintroduced moviegoers to the brilliance that is Daniel Day-Lewis. There’s a sincerity to all his performances even when he’s going completely over-the-top as in this picture. When he lectures Leonardo DiCaprio on “the spectacle of fearsome acts” (perhaps his quietest moment in the film), he means it. Every word of it. Not only does he steal the show but he provides the glue that holds this messy misfire together. Had Scorsese made this in the 1970s, he certainly would’ve cast De Niro as Bill Cutting. He would’ve been great, I’m sure, but I doubt he would’ve had that same presence as Day-Lewis.

4. Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – The Third Man: Without question the most charming villain in cinema history. The characters talk about Lime for literally an hour before he makes an appearance, and by the time we really know who he is, Orson Welles has no trouble at all working his magic. He’s so good that even though every instinct tells us to despise him, we just can’t bring ourselves to go there. Then there’s the magnificent cuckoo clock speech — which Welles penned himself — which further puts us in a moral conundrum. He kinda has a point. It’s strange that he isn’t as well-regarded as an actor because, as this film attests to, he was brilliant at it.

3. HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) – 2001: A Space Odyssey: Imagine facing off against a villain with no soul. No personality. A villain who is all-seeing and all-knowing. A villain whose actions are either simple mistakes or calculated acts of sabotage. As the following clip demonstrates, there is absolutely no way to reason with HAL 9000, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. The only way to get through HAL is to destroy HAL, but in a universe that is entirely run by machines, how many HALs will have to be destroyed before we are free from this technological tyranny? Kubrick asks this question brilliantly but never provides a clear-enough answer. But one thing’s for sure: Right now, the machines are winning.

2. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – No Country For Old Men: I don’t care how recent the film is; there is no way that the borderline inhuman killer Chigurh won’t go down as one of film’s best villains. We no literally nothing about where he comes from or why he kills for a living. For all we know he is the Angel of Death incarnate. He’s not getting revenge on a world that damned him, he’s not just a human being with different values, he is just a lunatic. But that’s where Bardem’s contribution comes in; He doesn’t play him like a typical psychopath. He often has a congenial smile on his face and never chews the scenery. He lets his actions speak for themselves. The ambiguity is what makes it work, especially when he decides NOT to kill like in the iconic coin toss scene. Glad he’s not my friendo.

1. Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) – The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover: The most underrated villain in film just happens to be the best. Spica isn’t sexy like Cady, talented like the Butcher, creepy like Peru, quiet like Chigurh, and certainly not charming like Lime. On the contrary, he is loud, vulgar, abusive, and altogether revolting. Whether it’s just a love story-turned-revenger’s tragedy or a savage satire of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Greenaway’s most popular film is sure to get under your skin and maybe even turn your stomach. Spica’s verbal and physical abuse towards his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) will make any viewer cringe to the point where you don’t even want to see him on-screen anymore. But no matter how much Spica offends and upsets you, be sure to stay for the grand finale wherein Georgina finally turns the tables on him, and provides you with one of the most horrifying and at the same time relieving endings. Forget Dumbledore; this is the part I will remember Michael Gambon for.

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8 Responses to “The Top 10 Villains of All-Time.”

  1. Julie said

    What about Malcom McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” and Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”?? They’re more terrifying to me than HAL

  2. Noah said

    But they’re not villains (especially Alex). They’re anti-heroes.

  3. Tom said

    No Vader, No Corleone, No Jack Tourance… sorry, but good try

  4. Noah said

    Did you read my post at all?

    “I also made the decision to ignore any and all anti-heroes no matter how beloved, including Travis Bickle, Alex DeLarge, Michael Corleone, Patrick Bateman, Tony Montana, and Jack Torrance. I feel we miss the point when we label these characters as villains, especially Bickle, who always appears on mainstream versions of this list. Likewise with Colonel Kurtz.”

  5. Noah said

    Also Vader is only the villain if you count A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. If you consider him in the full context, he is more of a tragic figure than a villain. Palpatine is far more villainous.

  6. Harry Haran said

    I think Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds is the most charming villain I have seen on screen!

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