17 August 2019

The Best of the Bad Guys

by John M. Floyd

I think it's interesting how often actors say, in interviews, that they love playing villains--and that the more evil the role, the more fun they have. Also interesting is that there are a handful of actors who have never, in their film careers, played true villains--Tom Selleck, James Garner, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, Mel Gibson, Jackie Chan, Charlton Heston, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant--and there are others, like Gregory Peck, Andy Griffith, Kevin Costner, Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, James Stewart, etc., who did play villains and just weren't very convincing. Part of that, I guess, is the image we viewers already have of those actors as "good guys."

But we're not talking, today, about good guys. They're no fun anyway. The question is, who are the best (scariest, most evil, most believable) movie villains?

First, the disclaimers:

Not included are SF/fantasy villains, horrror villains, superheroes villains, or cartoon villains: Lord Voldermort, Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, The Terminator, Freddie Kreuger, Kylo Ren, Jack Torrance, Catwoman, HAL 9000, The Joker, Scar, Biff Tannen, Cruella de Vil, Pennywise the Clown, Michael Myers, Regan McNeil (while possessed), Bellatrix Lastrange, Wile E. Coyote, Agent Smith, The Wicked Witch of the West, etc.

I also didn't include Michael ad Vito Corleone, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, Keyser Soze, and others who might be villainous but we still wind up rooting for. In the following list, we're talking about truly bad people.

Not that it matters, but I've ranked them from least scary/least evil (50) to scariest/most evil (1). In my opinion only.

So here's my list.

50. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) -- Mutiny on the Bounty
49. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) -- Goldfinger
48. Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) -- Unforgiven 
47. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) -- On Her Majesty;s Secret Service
46. Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) -- Tombstone 
45. Calvera (Eli Wallach) -- The Magnificent Seven
44. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) -- Pulp Fiction
43. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) -- The Devil Wears Prada
42. Bill Strannix (Tommy Lee Jones) -- Under Siege
41. Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) -- The Manchurian Candidate
40. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) -- It's a Wonderful Life
39. Nitti (Billy Drago) -- The Untouchables
38. Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) -- Rebecca
37. Private Detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) -- Blood Simple
36. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) -- All About Eve
35. Bill "Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) -- Gangs of New York
34. Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman) -- Quigley Down Under
33. Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) -- Kill Bill
32. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) -- Fight Club
31. Noah Cross (John Huston) -- Chinatown
30. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) -- Double Indemnity
29. Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) -- Blue Velvet
28. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) -- Platoon
27. Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) -- Night of the Hunter
26. Dr. Szell (Laurence Olivier) -- Marathon Man
25. Roat (Alan Arkin) -- Wait Until Dark
24, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) -- Scarface
23. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) -- Wall Street
22. Liberty Vallance (Lee Marvin) -- The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance
21. Frank (Henry Fonda) -- Once Upton a Time in the West
20. Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci) -- Goodfellas
19. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) -- Taxi Driver
18. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) -- Die Hard
17. Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) -- Training Day
16. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) -- Psycho
15. Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) -- Inglorious Basterds
14. Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb (Ted Levine) -- The Silence of the Lambs
13. Max Cady (Robert DeNiro) -- Cape Fear (remake)
12. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) -- Misery
11. Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) -- Gladiator
10. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) -- Fatal Attraction
9.  John Doe (Kevn Spacey) -- Seven
8.  Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) -- Shane
7.  Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) -- True Romance
6.  Serial Killer (Andy Robinson) -- Dirty Harry 
5.  Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) -- The Green Mile
4.  Amos Goethe (Ralph Fiennes) -- Schindler's List
3.  Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
2.  Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) -- The Silence of the Lambs
1.  Anton Chighur (Javier Bardem) -- No Country for Old Men

Runners-up? There are a bunch. Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love, Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) in Split and Glass, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) in The Shawshank Redemption, Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat, Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? -- and so on and so on.

It surprised me, as I searched back through movies I'd watched, how many times certain actors' names showed up as villains. And they weren't the ones I would've expected, like Willem Dafoe, Danny Trejo, Tim Roth, Jack Palance, John Malkovich, Christopher Lee, Billy Drago, Ian McShane, etc.--guys who look like villains. Instead, they were names like Kevin Spacey, Glenn Close, Alan Rickman, Powers Boothe, Robert DeNiro, Gary Oldman, and Christopher Walken. (Okay, I take that back: Christopher Walken does look villainous.)

The really surprising thing I found was that a few actors who almost always played "good guys" were extremely convincing as bad guys as well: Denzel in Training Day, Angela Lansbury in Manchurian Candidate, Meryl in Devil Wears Prada, Michael Douglas in Wall Street, Olivier in Marathon Man, Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. Doesn't seem to happen often.

Now . . . Who'd I leave out? Who'd I miss the mark on? Who are some of your picks?

Next time I'll try to get back to writing about writing.

See you then.


  1. You caught several that I thought of immediately, (Norman Bates, Hannibal Lector, Hans Gruber).

    But how about Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) in Sexy Beast? Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) in Black Mass? I'll stop now.

  2. I would include Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men. And I would include Imelda Staunton (Delores Umbridge) from the Harry Potter movies. (You may be excluding fantasy, John, but I'm not.)

    And I must take exception to your statement that Wile E. Coyote is a villain, even if he's excluded. He is a super genius and an amazing painter who is simply trying to get some food, but he's thwarted at every turn by defective products and a road runner that is freakishly fast and so smug it deserves to be caught. Wile E. Coyote is no villain. He is a nor victim with the stamina to keep on trying, no matter how many anvils fall on his head. I applaud him.

  3. Good list, John. But as you say about these folks: "I also didn't include Michael ad Vito Corleone, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, Keyser Soze, and others who might be villainous but we still wind up rooting for. In the following list, we're talking about truly bad people," I would also not include Travis Bickle on the list. He's an anti-hero, but I wouldn't call him a villain. He had the potential to be a bad guy, but ultimately I don't think he was.

  4. John Milton/Satan (Al Pacino) in THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE
    Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in LAURA
    Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan in the MANHUNTER version and Ralph Fiennes) RED DRAGON
    Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in KISS OF DEATH

  5. I would add the B list, but excellent, performers in the low budget The Honeymoon Killers.

  6. Rob, I almost included Whitey ( a villain on-screen AND in real life) but I forgot about Don Logan. And until I saw SB, I couldn't really picture Kingsley as a bad guy.

    I agree, Barb--I should've included Colonel Jessep. I probably just couldn't handle the truth. And the only reason I didn't consider fantasy villains is that there are so many of 'em. As for Wile E., you're probably right. I guess he would've been a villain if he'd been smart enough to actually finish what he started. NOTE: My wife and I recently re-watched The Great Race, and it occurred to me that Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) in that movie was the live-action version of Wile E. Coyote, and The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) was the Roadrunner.

    I must agree, Paul, with your argument for Travis Bickle. I think I probably included him more because of the "scary" than the "evil."

    Good additions, O'Neil. I agree. Especially Dollarhyde. (Tom Noonan's a terrifying-lookin dude anyway.) I can't believe I forgot Widmark in Kiss of Death. The ultimate villain.

    Thanks, folks, for the comments. A little late getting to this, but you can see how early (late) I get going on Saturday mornings . . .

  7. Janice, just now saw your note. Good point, on The Honeymoon Killers. Hey, sometimes those B-movies are my favorites.

  8. Barb's Coyote defense has me laughing. Well done.

  9. Last year I proposed the John Floyd Best Bad Guys Ever Award, and here it is! Yay!

    I have to mention Lee van Cleef, both a favorite good guy (For a Few Dollars More) and bad guy (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).

    Before Fatal Attraction, before Glenn Close, hot and homicidal Jessica Walter scared the hell out of guys in Play Misty for Me.

    More than Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Lotte Lenya's Colonel Rosa Klebb (From Russia with Love) proved a deadly character.

    A virtually unknown but superb bad guy is hired assassin Miguel de Alvarado, played by Hungarian actor Lukács Bicskey. That decidedly B-movie is Day of Wrath aka Game of Swords.

    And my favorite is… ta da… Hannibal Lector.

  10. Leigh, the best thing about any "best of" list are the reminders of who was left out.

    Lee Van Cleef was born to play bad guys, and did, most of the time. And you're right, Jessica Walters scared both me and Clint Eastwood. It's amazing how few of my movie friends seem to remember Play Misty for Me.

    And I forgot Rosa Klebb!! By the way, I also didn't mention Oddjob, from Goldfinger, but while he was a villain, he wasn't all that scary. That frisbee hat of his never seemed too lethal, though it wound up doing him in. And speaking of lethal, I also forgot Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon.

    This stuff is fun to remember . . .

  11. Sorry -- Walter, not Walters.

  12. Leigh, I just saw the graphic--thanks for inserting that!

  13. A great list, John! Each one of these characters is truly despicable, maybe except one. First I applaud you for having Andy Robinson's killer so high up the list. Has there ever been a more hate-able villain? I feel Lee Marvin's Liberty Valance belongs in the top ten. The film is a classic, and Valance is truly scary. Only Wayne could dispatch this dude. Speaking of Lee Marvin, his villainous adversary Shack (played by Ernest Borgnine) in Emperor of the North Pole is worthy of top 50 consideration.

    Not sure if Travis Bickle is really a villain. Yeah he's nuts, but not evil. He's a vet who is losing his mind. He goes on his killing spree to save an underaged prostitute, and the his "victims" are pretty scummy. I could go either way on this one. Anyway, great list!

  14. Thanks, Larry -- Yep, most of these folks are pretty bad, but you're right about Travis. I probably shouldn't have said he was a true villain--but boy was he creepy. And I had forgotten about Borgnine in Emperor of the North. And I'd probably have to add Gary Oldman in The Book of Eli, also. And Isaac Hayes in Escape From New York. Too many villains, too little time . . .

    I saw Dirty Harry in a theater in Oklahoma City when it first came out, and you're right, Andy Robinson is one of the most hate-inspiring villains I've ever seen. The audience actually cheered at the end, when he got what he deserved. I think the Scorpio Killer was his first movie role.

  15. I'm with Leigh on Jessica Walters in Play Misty for Me.

  16. Hey Eve! She was pretty scary, wasn't she? It's been years and years since I saw that movie.

  17. Well, in "None But the Lonely Heart" (1844), Cary Grant's character is definitely not likable. Whether he's worse than that is perhaps a subject for discussion.

  18. Don, good point! And Clint Eastwood in Tightrope wasn't exactly a good guy either, and Charlton Heston was Genghis Khan. So I guess you can't give a halo to any of these folks. I guess it depends on just how bad--or good--they are.

  19. Wow. We all watch (and enjoy!) many of the same movies. Not really surprised. Great thought provoking article.

  20. Hey Deborah. I have always (as you know) loved talking about movies, so putting this list together was fun. Since conflict is always the driving force of a story, I guess it makes sense that the villain can sometimes be its most interesting character.

  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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