Hello, readers! Conflict is essential to any story’s greatness. Whether it is man vs. man (most common), man vs. nature or man vs. self, a conflict is needed. There is no greater personification of conflict than the role of the antagonist, more commonly known as the villain.
What makes a great villain? Intelligence, manipulation, and the ability to rack the protagonist’s nerves are all necessary character traits of a memorable villain as they pose greater challenges for the story’s hero. Some are in it for power, some are in it for money, and some men “just wanna watch the world burn.” Some are ruthless, unforgiving, cold and bloodthirsty; however, many can also be charming and charismatic After all, “charm is deceitful and beauty vain” and we’ve all heard of the phrase a “wolf in sheep’s clothing. To be honest, some of the best villains ever written are even more charming and charismatic than the heroes they face. It’s that mask of deceit hiding their true colors that makes them all the more evil.
Over the course of this five-part series, I’m gonna present to you my picks for the 50 greatest villains to ever hit the silver screen. They’ll range from from films of all genres, dating from some of today’s most eccentric fiends all the way back to the Silent Era. Out of them all, fifteen were good enough to catch the Academy’s eye, with seven of them taking home the gold.
Also, keep in mind, I make a distinction between a villain and an anti-hero, so that is why you won’t find characters like Alex DeLarge or Travis Bickle on this list. And it should go without saying that some of the entries may contain character spoilers, so you’ve been warned.
Well, enough of the chitchat, let’s begin the countdown, starting with…
50) Calvin J. Candie (Django Unchained) – Leonardo DiCaprio
2012 – The most recent villain on this list, DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie is all “sugar and spice and everything nice” with that charming, debonaire smile of his along with a side of sadistic, cutthroat, and just try to do him wrong. As the slave owner who owns title character Django’s (Jaime Foxx) wife Broomhilda, Monsieur Candie’s scene involving a beaten down slave attacked by dogs is enough to send an uneasy feeling your way. It’s a phenomenal performance by DiCaprio, who certainly has portrayed conflicted men, but at least empathetic and likeable though. Here he finally shows he can play nasty amongst the nastiest of them.
49) Walter Peck (Ghostbusters) – William Atherton
1984 – Don’t you just hate it when you come up with a great idea that can potentially save your city, and then some smug, ginger, dickless tree-hugger comes along to rain on your parade? Atherton’s Walter Peck was bureaucracy dressed in a three piece suit. A self-righteous officer for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Peck’s mission was to shut the Ghostbusters down by any means necessary, even if that meant causing further harm to New York. In his mind, the Ghostbusters weren’t saving the city; they were creating illusions through harmful chemicals in order to make a quick buck. It’s one of the most underrated villainous performances, and Atherton was such a great comic foil for Bill Murray’s Dr. Peter Venkman. Of course, those of us that have seen the film know in the end, Mr. Pecker, as Venkman affectionately refers to him as, gets his “just desserts”. One interesting note: On the Ghostbusters audio commentary, writer/actor Harold Ramis said after the film became a gigantic hit, Atherton told him he couldn’t walk into a bar without someone wanting to pick a fight with him all the time. The cherry on top, though, was a school bus of kids going by, spotting him and screaming out the windows, “Yo, dickless!”
48) Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction) – Glenn Close
1987 – If there’s ever a movie made that could be used as a terrifying PSA against marital infidelity, Fatal Attraction would be it. Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest comes off as more than just a bit clingy. She attempts suicide, repeatedly calls Michael Douglas’s Dan Gallagher at work, then when that fails, goes for the home phone, and commits a number of wrongs most sane, law abiding citizens would frown upon, yet most crazy exes have right at the top of their to-do list. I’ll refrain from mentioning which of those “wrongs” are committed for the sake of those that haven’t seen the movie, but one thing’s for certain – she is not going to be ignored. To this day, almost thirty years after the release of the film, Glenn Close has stated she still gets men that walk up to her and say, “You scared the shit out of me… You saved my marriage”. Note to all pet rabbit lovers currently involved in an affair – hide your pets… You’ll thank me later.
47) Frank Booth (Blue Velvet) – Dennis Hopper
1986 – The late Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is a drug and sex addicted, sadomasochistic, psychotic sociopath who terrorizes Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy in the town of Lumberton. His infantile behavior in moments of rage such as his famous line, “Baby wants to fuck!” add much more to his twisted psychosis. Of course, to those that have seen Blue Velvet, we all know the most iconic aspect of Booth – aside from his bizarre affection for Roy Orbison hits – is his frequent inhalation of the unexplained gas (In 2002, on the DVD commentary, Hopper claimed it was Amyl Nitrite) through a medical mask. After years of film flops and battling drug addiction, it was Hopper’s performance here as the demented Frank Booth that gave him his much needed comeback.
46) Roger “Verbal” Kint (The Usual Suspects) – Kevin Spacey
1995 – “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” It’s hard for me to explain much of “Verbal” Kint’s character without giving much away, but that line pretty much says it all. Kevin Spacey knocked it out of the park as the hobbled Kint, who’s interrogated throughout the film for a recent dockyard massacre, and both he and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie took home Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay, respectively) for their roles in this film. I can’t say much about the plot, but to those that haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you check it out. Spacey’s performance alone is good enough for a watch, but McQuarrie’s intricate script makes it even better.
45) Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men) – Javier Bardem
2007 – If you wind up facing him, get ready for one high stakes game of heads or tails. Javier Bardem’s quietly menacing Anton Chigurh made something as simple a coin flip frightening while at the same time turned a cattle gun into a rather fashionable weapon. Portraying a hitman hired to recover money from a drug deal gone bad, Bardem’s Oscar winning performance is nothing short of brilliant, and it’s his quietest moments when he barely utters a single word that sends the biggest shiver up your spine. Like with their previous efforts, the Cohen brothers know what it takes to make a memorable villain. Anton Chigurh (who, to be fair, is from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name) is by far their most memorable.
44) Hans Gruber (Die Hard) – Alan Rickman
1988 – “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.” Hans Gruber is just one of many examples of how you can have a great villain that’s not crazy or psychotic, but actually eloquent, well dressed, and highly intelligent. Gruber’s plan is to steal $640 million from the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles, yet though he most certainly uses terrorism as a means, in his mind he’s not a terrorist. He’s using terrorism as a tool to teach the Nakatomi Corporation a lesson about their greed. It’s that sort of deceptive trick, used by many great villains before and after, of portraying themselves as the good and their captives bad that makes Hans Gruber such a devilishly smart antagonist. On top of that, the back and forth between him and Bruce Willis’s John McClane is grade A entertainment.
43) Scar (The Lion King) – voiced by Jeremy Irons
1994 – The first Disney villain to make this list and certainly not the last, Scar gave children, in particular older brothers, enough nightmares to keep them sleeping with one eye open with his “Cain and Abel” story arc. Being jealous of his brother Mufasa, the king of the pride, is just the tip of the iceberg; he then plans and executes the death of his brother. Hold on, ‘cause it gets better when Scar, in no hurry to ever win “Uncle of the Year”, then places the blame of Mufasa’s death on his nephew Simba in a guilt trip that drives him away for years (Giving the movie a perfect balance of slapstick fun mixed with sobering reality like most Disney animated films). Like the best Disney villains, Scar is proof that even though you belong to the House of Mouse, you can still be just as diabolical as the greatest evil minds in film.
42) T-101 (The Terminator) – Arnold Schwarzenegger
1984 – He shows no anger, no passion, no psychosis, no emotions whatsoever. In writer/director James Cameron’s breakthrough hit, the T-101 has been programmed to complete one mission: Kill Sarah Connor and not just her, but anyone that gets in his way. It is through Sarah Connor that her own yet to be born son John will lead a resistance of men against the rising of the machines in the future. In spite of the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role isn’t flashy or in need of much, if any, acting at all, it is still a chilling performance. That’s the point, though; he’s a machine. There is no show or theatrics, and in some ways, you can argue that it’s just as difficult to portray emotionless perfectly as it is theatrical. In a twist of irony, T-101 does reappear in the sequel (which I believe to be the best in the series), but this time reprogrammed to be the hero.
41) Jack Torrance (The Shining) – Jack Nicholson
1980 – “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” This is like cabin fever except instead of being trapped inside an small, enclosed space with nothing to do, you’re trapped in a grand hotel… with still nothing to do. Author Stephen King may have at one point been quoted as saying he hated this movie, but that doesn’t change the fact that Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation is one hell of a horror masterpiece. Jack Nicholson’s performance is a haunting tale of man descending into madness. At first, he refuses to admit anything is remotely wrong when his wife (Shelley Duvall) starts to show concern, but like a decaying foundation left unattended he slowly but surely begins to crack. On a side note, I showed this film to one of my friends who was spending the night, and after seeing it just once, he refuses to watch it again, even still to this day.
Well, that’s all for the first ten. Next week I’ll have picks 40-31 in Part II. If you have any favorite villains, feel free to let me know in the comment sections.