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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.