April A to Z: V is for Villain – 15 Great Movie Villains


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By Niall McArdle

Every hero needs a villain, or in screenplay-writing terms, every protagonist needs an antagonist to battle. Here are some memorable villains from the movies.

Tommy Udo, Kiss of Death

In his film debut Richard Widmark shocked audiences (and stole the film from hero Victor Mature) with his portrayal of a giggling, violent psychopath. Nicolas Cage stole the film from David Caruso in the remake.

 Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum always seemed to have such a good time playing villainous roles and always looked so relaxed doing it. In The Night of the Hunter (the only film Charles Laughton directed) Mitchum plays a religious fanatic (with LOVE and HATE tattoos on his hands) who terrorises some children who know where their dead father buried stolen money.

Max Cady, Cape Fear

Mitchum again, breezily terrifying as an ex-con bent on revenge against his lawyer Gregory Peck. I like this version (and this performance) far better than the Scorcese/De Niro remake.

Sir Guy of Gisbourne, The Adventures of Robin Hood

Prince John`s nasty sidekick has been played several times, perhaps most memorably by Basil Rathbone.

th (9)Hans Gruber, Die Hard

He is an exceptional thief!

Harry Lime, The Third Man

Who else but arrogant genius Orson Welles could play the cold, charming, murderous black marketeer Harry Lime? The Third Man is justly famous for several things: the zither music, Carol Reed’s innovative direction, Graham Greene’s pessimistic story, great performances from the entire cast, and Welles’ smirk as the light catches his face. It was Welles himself who wrote the famous ferris wheel speech.

Grand Moff Tarkin

Grand Moff Tarkin, Star Wars

Darth Vader may have embraced the Dark Side, and while he’s terrifying, he is only Tarkin’s henchman, little more than hired muscle. It’s Tarkin (Peter Cushing) who blandly orders the destruction of Alderaan to demonstrate the power of the Death Star.

Jame Gumb, The Silence of the Lambs

I watched several episodes of Monk before I realised that the beleagured but genial Capt. Stottlemeyer was played by the same guy who seriously creeped out audiences as Jame Gumb, AKA Buffalo Bill, the serial killer and amateur sewer in The Silence of the Lambs. Ted Levine feels he did better in the audition than he did in the actual performance, so you can imagine how scary that audition was.

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General Zod  In Superman and Superman II Terence Stamp played the fallen Krypton general as an elegant, crisply spoken megalomaniac. I argued here that Michael Shannon’s more robust take on the role helped redeem the otherwise awful Man of Steel

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The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz

Hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton was destined to play villains of one sort or another: prissy nurses, priggish schoolmarms, wicked witches. ‘I’ll get you, my pretty!”

Cody Jarrett, White Heat 

No list of villains would be complete without a Cagney film. Cody Jarrett is the mother-obsessed cruel leader of a criminal gang. “Top of the world, ma!”

The Joker

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I can’t remember which film magazine headlined their piece on Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Burton’s Batman as “The Casting Coup of the Decade”. Twenty-five years later, his performance is still hugely enjoyable, combining the psychotic glee of Cesar Romero with the cynicism of Chinatown‘s JJ Gittes. Nicholson’s Joker is given a believable back-story (as opposed to someone who simply wants to watch the world burn in The Dark Knight) and a gangster’s moll. Ledger’s performance is equally brilliant, but it’s a much darker take on the role. “Why so serious?”

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Hannibal Lecter   Thomas Harris’ culinary psychopath is one of the great characters in literature of the last thirty years. On screen he has been played by four actors: Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, Gaspard Ulliel and Mads Mikkelsen. Cox’s performance in the stylish Manhunter is brisk, brittle, and very disturbing. For Silence of the Lambs the filmmakers wanted a bigger name. Hopkins won the role after Gene Hackman turned it down. It made Hopkins a star at 52 and earned him a Best Actor Oscar (even though he’s on screen for only sixteen minutes). What defines Hannibal? His bizarre mixture respect and contempt for Will Graham? His love for Clarice Starling? Or his horrific childhood in Lithuania at the end of the war? 

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Major Von Hapen, Where Eagles Dare

Gestapo officer Major Von Hapen is a mixture of cold cruelty and suave charm, chatting up barmaids one minute, pulling a gun the next. With his blond hair and icy blue stare, actor Derrin Nesbitt was the perfect fit.

Commandant Amon Goeth, Schindler’s List

Another Nazi. Played by Ralph Fiennes, the camp commandant incarnates evil in all its banality and cruelty. When Goeth isn’t casually taking potshots at prisoners or executing a woman over engineering specifications, he’s ordering the liquidaton  of the Krakow ghetto with the words “today is history.”

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9 thoughts on “April A to Z: V is for Villain – 15 Great Movie Villains

  1. Soooooo many good villains to pick from. How about Dr. Szell from The Marathon Man, Nurse Ratchet from One Flow Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Goldfinger, the shark from Jaws, and Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) from The Manchurian Candidate?

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  2. Great list! Robert Mitchum is one of my favourite actors and his version of Cape fear was outstanding. The joker is a classic played brilliantly by both actors. There are so many great villains who are more than often more interesting then the hero.

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  3. Ooooh – you’ve got some total creepers in there…exxxxxxcellent (as Mr. Burns would say, pushing his fingers together). It seems like several people wrote about villains today, including me; I chose to write about Disney villainesses, because I’m so tired of this pink princess nonsense. The bad guys can be so much more dynamic and complex and interesting than goody-goody good guys, am I right??? That Jame Gumb…he totally kills me! 😮

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