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The 30 Greatest Movie Villains Of All Time

23 September 2014 | Features, Other Lists | by Dusan Savic

best movie villains

Villains have always been as important for the success of the movie as heroes. Every hero needs a matching opponent, so a great villain needs to have commanding screen presence and to strike fear into the hearts of the viewers, while convincing them that his character is really capable of committing atrocious crimes.

Hence, playing a villain is often far more challenging than being a good guy, and, let’s face it, some of them did a much more memorable job than their good-hearted adversaries. Actually, many of the bad guys are the exact thing that made a certain film memorable in the first place.

This list consists not only of the actors who had a regular chance to be in a villainous skin, but also some of them who made their first venture into bad guy roles and nailed them perfectly, making the audience remember them forever.

 

30. Phyllis Dietrichson – The Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck was known to be one of the nicest and most decent people in Hollywood, and she was quite uncertain when offered this role, but after being persuaded by Billy Wilder to give it a shot, she gave a stunning portrayal of a ruthless killer who decides to perform an insurance fraud in a blink of an eye, even if it involves murdering her husband.

Cold-blooded and manipulative, she uses her charm and seductiveness to wrap Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff around her finger, and make him go “straight down the line“. Stanwyck proved her versatility by portraying the ultimate noir femme fatale quite smoothly and easily (at least it appears to be so when watching her). Her character fits the generally bleak tone of the movie perfectly and she garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her fantastic work.

 

29. Captain Vidal – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Captain Vidal

Sergi Lopez gave a spine-chilling performance as a fascist Spanish Army captain during the Second World War. Sadistic and cruel, he is a true representative of the authority at the time. He is given the task of cleaning out the remaining leftists from Spanish forests and hills, while trying to care for his new wife and his child she is bearing. Simultaneously, he has much less affection for his stepdaughter, who escapes gruesome reality orchestrated by him and his collaborators.

In this dark and violent fairy tale, Captain Vidal is the element of evil, which tries not to allow the “happily ever after“ ending. His repressed and troubled mind, blinded by the wrong ideology, leads him to destruction, and he literally goes out with a bang. His acting was deservedly hailed by both the critics and the audiences, and one of the strongest elements of the movie.

 

28. Cody Jarrett – White Heat (1949)

White Heat (1949)

James Cagney had already had a string of successful gangster roles prior to Raoul Walsh’s small masterpiece, but in this movie, which closed the cycle of Warner Bros gangster flicks, he probably played the role of his fruitful career. He is simply electric as a brutal and impulsive gangster with occasional headaches who has a bit strange relationship with his mother. His lines are fast, his manner is hasty, he doesn’t forgive betrayal and doesn’t avoid being cruel when necessary.

The fantastic script that holds up well even today, 65 years after making the movie, makes Cagney’s Cody Jarrett larger than life, almost every line he utters is quotable. The character inspired an entire series of murderous-monster-goes-on-a-rampage flicks, and the magnitude of James Cagney’s acting is in the fact that even though you know how he’s going to end up, at times you almost wish he got away. Made it, Ma, top of the world!

 

27. Lord Summerisle – The Wicker Man (1973)

thewickerman

Christopher Lee simply shines as the leader of a religious cult on a small Scottish island, which puzzles a police officer who investigates the disappearance of a young girl. He is impressive because he is cool and eloquent, and until the very end, he underplays his character, portraying him simply as a man who does his job and fulfils his duties as a leader. As such, he is a perfect opposition to the hectic, devoutly religious and confused cop who cannot understand anything of the rituals he witnessed.

Even though Lee’s Lord Summerisle is in the movie only for a short period of time, his magnificent screen presence makes up for it beautifully. He gives the film a wonderfully creepy edge, reminiscing his previous Hammer roles. Still, it is a much better role than his vampire caricatures, due to the great writing of Anthony Shaffer. No wonder Christopher Lee thinks this is the role of his career.

 

26. Louis Cyphre – Angel Heart (1987)

Louis-Cyphre-Robert-De-Niro-in-Angel-Heart-1987

A darkly mysterious man hires a private detective to find a singer who vanished and doesn’t want to be found, in order to settle an old score with him. Things then become progressively grim and dark. Robert de Niro hasn’t got a lot of screen time, but he manages to deliver a breathtakingly menacing and ominous performance.

Only a handful of actors could turn an ordinary thing like eating an egg into something so disturbing. He utters famous lines with such charisma and power, that we have to admire him in a way, even though we know who he is.

Sir Alan Parker later said that Bobby D’s performance was so realistic and eerie that he tended to avoid him during his scenes, letting him direct himself. Although the film bombed at the box office when it came out, it is now considered a cult classic and De Niro’s towering performance is regarded as one of his best roles to date, with a very good reason.

 

25. Norman Stansfield – Leon: The Professional (1994)

Norman Stansfield (Leon The Professional)

Probably the most vicious movie policeman (together with the bad lieutenant), Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield is a Beethoven-loving drug-dealing, corrupt junkie DEA agent with no moral scruples whatsoever. He coldly organizes the assassination of an entire family out of revenge for a quite trifle matter, and then does his best to locate the remaining member of the family, a girl who, in the meantime, crossed paths with a professional hitman, who is, in turn, an extremely hard nut to crack.

Gary Oldman improvised several sequences on the spot, in order to make his character even more bizarre, creating a combination of a person so chillingly evil, but at the same time so quirky and interesting, that it is a real wonder how he didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work. EVERYONE at the Academy should be ashamed.

 

24. Wild Bill Wharton – The Green Mile (1999)

“Wild Bill” Warton (Green Mile)

Even though he was already in the movies for a decade or so before filming “The Green Mile“, this was virtually the first bigger role for Sam Rockwell, and he used his opportunity very well.

It is not a particularly meaty one, nor he has much screen time on his hands, yet he manages to be extremely convincing in the role of a sadistic child molester and killer, for whose crimes someone else is waiting to be executed. He behaves exactly like a man who doesn’t care about anything, and never contemplates the atrocity of his heinous crimes – he is loudmouthed, reckless and extremely sadistic.

As such, he locks horns with another similar character – a mean-spirited prison guard played by Doug Hutchison. What happens to both of them is somehow both twisted and poetic, a combination so recognizable when Stephen King is the writer. Rockwell did his best to demonstrate all the perversion of this character’s truly abominable mind, for a short amount of time he was on the screen.

 

 

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  • Colonel_Neville_Wraithchild

    haha, i read the whole norman stansfield entry just to see if there was a reference to his most famous line. wasn’t disappointed…

  • pollitttyler

    Ridiculous….never EVER should The Joker be ahead of Darth Vader! I get so sick of hearing of that damn overrated character and film…

    • Nameless Paladin

      Darth Vader? Darth Vader is the most simple minded villain of all time. “Dark side of the force shall rule the galaxy” That’s pantomime nonsense.

      • Brian Lussier

        I agree partially. I think he gains complexity in Return Of The Jedi when he actually demonstrates love for his son.

      • Ardian Sukma

        The Joker is ACTUALLY THE BEST, Darth Vader is too simple, classic, usual, he should be the 30th

      • jose escoto

        (IMHO) Voldemort is the most simple minded villain of all time, Darth Vader at least at the end of Episode V and VI he has a conflicted issues about loving his son or obbey his crazy boss, and yes (Ledger) The Joker is a force of nature ahead of the hero at all time, but Voldemort is a simple bad guy that everybody else saying how evel he is and you never see him doing anything evil

    • cristina willigs

      the joker was great, but seriously, he wouldnt ever be considered a number one if heath ledger didnt die

    • Wolfgang

      A villion with compassion? The Joker is pure caos, he’s a truly psycho.

      • Brian Lussier

        No, not the Joker, Darth Vader. Did you not see the words “Return Of The Jedi”?

    • Troy Lewis

      Completely agree!! . Ive never stayed awake through this film the worst Batman movie ever 🙂

      • Brian Lussier

        Well, I’m not a fan, but it’s still 100 times better than Batman Forever and especially Batman And Robin. And it’s also better than The Dark Knight Rises.

      • Aravind Sankar

        The Dark Knight is one of the best movies ever made and I don’t quite understand how anyone manages to sleep while watching such an amazing piece of art.

        • Phoenix Ramsey

          It really isn’t though. The exposition alone is enough to knock it down a few tiers (like all of Nolan’s work). The overt macho-ness even more. The movie is also ugly to look at, though technically proficient. The best thing about The Dark Knight has (and will always be) Heath Ledger’s Joker. With him the quasi Social Darwinist themes come to play. Really the best hand the TDK has to play.

        • Troy Lewis

          I did my friend, ..twice once in the theater and once on TV .. Sorry 🙂

  • Chuck Cerveny

    Hans Gruber, anyone?

    • cristina willigs

      i still preffer the sheriff of nothingham played by hans gruber

  • Terry Powell

    I would have included Harry Reickle, the psychotic bank robber in in The Silent Partner. Played deliciously by Christopher Plummer, he engages in a cat and mouse game with Elliot Gould. He is believable and cruel and you understand why he’d be a little pissed at Gould’s opportunistic bank teller. I’d replace Pacino’ s Scarface, who is definitely an evil man, but he’s not the villain of the story.

  • Rafael Raymundo

    LORD NARITSUGU FROM 13 ASSASSINS

    • Charles Barnes

      I’ll take issue with this. Miike just made the most detestable character possible in the cheapest, most uncomplicated ways. The character had no personality. Horrible actions committed =/= quality villain.

      • Rafael Raymundo

        I agree with “Horrible actions committed =/= quality villain”. I still like Lord Naritsugu though, the same way I liked Xerxes from 300. God-complexes, the saddest part is when they realize they’re human and still they stick to their fantasy world. They’re children, in that sense, and inhuman in another. And that’s why we can justify saying that they deserve to die. Or that they’re finally dead.

  • Dave Teves

    The part about Noah Cross/Chinatown actually contained spoilers. So anyone reading #17, just skip ahead or else you will have a bad time watching the movie if you haven’t yet already.

  • meladiction

    Hopkins’ Lecter is the real number 1.

  • Max Conoley

    Keyser Soze!!!

    • Aravind Sankar

      Yes.. Keyser Soze

  • Alex Poveda

    Where is Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho?

  • Grace Skerp

    Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) Manchurian Candidate. She deliberately turned her only child into a murderous basketcase. That’s cold blooded evil

  • Grace Skerp

    Honorable Mentions: Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) Body Heat. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) Shadow of a Doubt

  • Nameless Paladin

    Amon Goeth? Are you kidding me? Most oversimplified character ever?

  • Milad Mohammadi

    May not to forget Mrs. Danverns in Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece’s Rebecca!
    And how it possible to forget it?

  • Brian Lussier

    I hate this “Heath Ledger as the Joker is the best of them all” attitude! He was great, yes, but it’s like people tend to forget there are some more interesting ones thlan him out there! Two words: Terminator and Gollum.

  • Niuder Radínski

    WHERE.IS.BLOFELD

  • Benas Bačanskas

    Terminator from The Terminator (1984)?

  • Eric Deason

    “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

  • Gabby

    Where are all the movies with Steve Buschemi in Con Air, Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man 3, and many many more villains?

    • Brian Lussier

      Willem Dafoe gave the most embarrassing performance of his career as the Green Goblin, and I always thought he sucked, so that says a lot. He’s become good since working with Lars Von Trier.

  • Biswajit Bhattacharya

    wtf? where’s Daniel Plainview?

  • Bijit Barat

    VOLDEMORT?

  • Unkle Amon

    Aileen Wuornos, Kyung-chul(I saw the Devil), Hando(Romper Stomper) and Stansfield should be no. 1.

    • Brian Lussier

      Aileen Wuornos is NOT a villain. You could make a point for her behavior, even if she goes over the top in the end.

      • Unkle Amon

        No, she was a sweetheart.

  • Jorge Barreiro

    Many of these could be considerated as anti-heroes instead of villains. But it is still a good list. I would also add: Agent Smith (The Matrix), Vincent (Collateral), Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs) and HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey).

  • Adel Narimani

    Do you know what villains mean?…neither hannibal or jack or tony motana or some others in this list aren’t even villans.

    • Brian Lussier

      Hannibal is definitely a villain.

      • Adel Narimani

        So who’s the hero in silence of lambs?

        • jann1k

          Clarice Starling, obviously. Hannibal functions as both anti-hero sidekick and villain, depending with whom he interacts. That’s part of what makes him such a great character, and villain for that matter.

    • John W. Thackery

      The AFI named Hannibal as the greatest villain in movie history. So yes, he definitely qualifies.

  • triplesec_ice

    This is probably the worst list I’ve ever seen. Too heavy on the last decade, with one or two classics sprinkled in randomly. Where’s Blofeld, possibly the ultimate bad guy? Oddjob? Niknak? Dr Strangelove? HAL-9000? JAck Nicholson in a Few Bad Men? Scarlett O’Hara? The list goes on… So poor.

    • Brian Lussier

      I’m assuminf you meant A Few GOOD Men, not A Few Bad Men. I agree the list kinda sucks, but judging by your own opinions, your list would suck even worse. Hal 9000 is missing for sure. He could be #1. But Dr. Strange love and Scarlett O’Hara?! That’s pushing it!

  • Matthew Benbenek

    Keyser Soze is a way better character than John Doe.

  • Deron Williams

    Literally about ten of them qualify as villains

  • Ricardo Bernal

    ¡Don Logan!

    • American Polyglot

      Right? And he wasn’t even the scariest person in that movie (Teddy Bess) but he was damn sure the most villainous, certainly one of the best villains I’d ever seen’

  • anindya

    I think all u muvi lovers forget 2 muvis and der negetive charectrs… 1- Edward Norton as Aron stamper in PRIMAL FEAR – 1996 & 2- Robert De Niro as Max Cady in CAPE FEAR – 1991.. der performance was mind blowing in dos muvis..

  • Davide Caraffi

    Frank Silva – Bob
    Gloria Swanson – Sunset Boulevard
    Emmanuelle Seigner – The Ninth Gate
    Al Pacino – Devil’s Advocate
    Orson Welles – Touch of Evil
    Ralph Fiennes – In Bruges
    Michael Ironside – Scanners
    Arno Frisch – Funny Games
    Christopher Walken – True Romance
    Boris Karloff – Black Sabbath

    But i agree with the author’s #1. Ledger’s Joker was simply great.

  • Sandor Salamon Doktor

    It’s really pathetic that each and every list about movie villains places Darth Vader to top ranks, whereas in villainy, the Emperor played magnificently by Ian McDiarmid so outdoes him!

  • Klaus Dannick

    Hannibal Lechter is not the villain of “Silence of the Lambs”; Jame Gumm/Buffalo Bill is the villain of “Silence of the Lambs”.

    And where’s Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady?

  • Никола Ременски

    The Third Man – Harry Lime

    American Psycho – Patrick Bateman

    There Will Be Blood – Daniel Plainview

    2001: A Space Odyssey – HAL 9000

  • Noah Garner

    Hal 9000!

  • Jorge Pancolart

    1492: Conquest of Paradise – Adrián de Moxica. Michael Wincott was also great as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood. Few more:

    Gary Oldman (Drexl Spivey) – True Romance
    Faye Dunaway (Joan Crawford) – Mommie Dearest
    Denzel Washington (Alonzo Harris) – Training Day
    Yul Brynner (Gunslinger) – Westworld
    Gary Busey (Mr. Joshua) – Lethal Weapon
    Anthony John Denison (Ray Luca) – Crime Story
    Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes) – Misery
    Trevor Howard (Captain William Bligh) – Mutiny on the Bounty
    Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro) – Casino
    Glenn Close (Alex Forrest) – Fatal Attraction

  • Matt Goodling

    This article is fucking inaccurate. There are two kinds of evil here. Made up evil like The Joker who hijacks Gotham City and then real evil like Noah Cross who rapes his daughter and forces her to have the child.

  • Hillary Espinal

    WHERE IS VOLDEMORT?

  • Hatesville

    Bengt Ekerot as Death in The Seventh Seal?

  • garden variety

    Silly and scattered theme…. Joker and Darth Vader minions should just stick with comic books.
    Frank booth at Jack Torrance now that cinema!
    Also, The guy from Animal Kingdom?
    Professor Fate from the great race?

  • Richard McLin

    How about the main villain from “The Patriot” he burns down a church, with most of the town inside, and kills two of Mel Gibson’s kids, including Heath Ledger.

    • John W. Thackery

      He’s a 1-dimensional cartoon character plus The Patriot is a garbage movie.

  • Nick Holmes.

    Bane, Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, The Penguin, Jack Torrance. They´re all better than The Joker.

  • Adam Jones

    This was great until I hit #1 and #2….

  • Adam Jones

    Bill from Kill Bill could definitely have fit in there.

  • warrenzoell

    Would you really call Aguirre a villain? I see him more as a tragic figure.

  • warrenzoell

    How about HAL 9000?

  • Abhishek Mondal

    Darth Vader ? Really? He is a cartoon character. Among these cinematic greats he looks like a boy with no pants on.

  • lark265

    a) the evil dude from “The Missing”
    b) the guy from “The Evil That Men Do”

  • The Wild One

    ROBERT MITCHUM in CAPE FEAR.

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    Katy Bates in Misery, and also the Warden from The Shawshank Redemption.

  • Joe Montoto

    Carl Denham (King Kong/1933)*
    The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz/1939)

    *The Robert Armstrong version. Not that abomination portrayed in the 2005 version by the talentless Jack Black.

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    De Niro in the untouchables or Gene Hackman in superman

  • jann1k

    Kyung-chul (I Saw the Devil)
    Simon Skinner (Hot Fuzz)
    Ms. Jones (Prisoners)
    Vincent (Collateral)
    Lord Naritsugu (13 Assassins)
    Sergio (Mad Circus)

  • Joao Ribeiro

    Travis bickle where the fuck are you ?

    • Emre Kara

      He is more like an antihero rather than a villain. He is the protagonist of the film.