Top 10 Movie Villains

Men (and a woman) behaving badly

Colin and James take us through their picks (five apiece) of the worst-best bad guys (and one gal) to have ever (dis)graced the silver screen. Do let us know your own choices, won’t you?

Colin’s choices

Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000)

The very best thing about Kingsley’s genuinely disturbing outing as a movie bad guy is that it’s hard to shake the image of him as Gandhi. Once you do – and it can take a little while – you realize just how fine an actor Kingsley is to be able to drop what is probably the most popular role he will ever play and get you to believe him as a gangster. Surrounded by hard men like Ray Winstone and Ian McShane, he makes them all look like primary school teachers in comparison. A real force of nature, manipulative, crass and prone to explosive outbursts and spectacular cruelty. Watching tough-guy Winstone cower before him is really a joy to behold.

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Ralph Fiennes as Harry in In Bruges (2008)

Lovely, lovely Ralph ‘Raif’ Fiennes. Famous for being, let’s face it, a bit of a pussy. His ever-so-worthy roles in films such as The English Patient (1996), Schindler’s List (1993) and The Reader (2008) have made him the man your mum/wife/SO would go all mushy over, next to Colin Firth, of course. As with Kingsley above, the real draw here is to watch the upper-middle-class softy turn into a shouty sweary monster of a man. He has arguably some of the best dialogue in the script, too – my favourite part alluding gently to his reputation. This is Harry, talking about the hitman-in-hiding, Ray (Colin Farrell):

Harry: So he’s having a really nice time?
Ken: Well, I’m having a really nice time. I’m not sure it’s really his cup of tea.
Harry: …What?
Ken: You know, I’m not sure it’s really his thing.
Harry: What do you mean it’s not really his thing? What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not really his thing. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?
Ken: Nothing, Harry.
Harry: It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing?

Wonderful.

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Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990)

Bates is very often good value but none more so than in this part, for which she (deservedly) picked up an Oscar.Β Annie Wilkes rescues novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) after a car accident, and it appears she is nursing him back to health. After all, as she tells him, she is his ‘number one fan’. However, when she finds out he’s killed off her heroine Misery Chastain in his latest book, things go from bad to psycho very quickly. Murder, torture and mayhem ensue – but without swearing, because Annie doesn’t approve of bad words.

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Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987)

The son of Spartacus, he isn’t. For me, one of Douglas’s better parts (aside from his delightful turn as ‘D-Fens’ in Falling Down (1993)). Douglas plays Gordon Gekko, the very epitome of everything that was wrong with the 1980s. A manipulative and truly unpleasant man, he sneers, wheedles, connives and back-stabs his way through the movie with an expression that could tun milk sour.

With such charming philosphies as ‘Greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit’ and ‘If you want a friend, get a dog’, he sets himself up as a ruthless, cunning demon of a man who worships at the temple of greed. An utter, unrepentant bastard throughout.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Of course I was going to pick him. What did you expect? He not only single-handedly re-invented the public perception of The Joker – particularly for those who have never so much as picked up a comic book or graphic novel – but also brought his true character to life. Forget Cesar Romero, forget Nicholson, this was the real Joker. The mannerisms, the half-smile and the hint of malevolence, even in times of apparent calm, alluded to the torrent of insanity going on behind the mask. There will never be a Joker better than Ledger’s – and you can quote me on that.

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James’s choices

Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988)

There’s no doubt about it, cinema villainy changed forever following Rickman’s inspired and chillingly evil take on big-time burglar Hans Gruber who, as everyone must surely know by now, leads his expert team on a mission to liberate $640 million from the Nakatomi Corporation building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and, as we also are all by now aware, he hadn’t counted on NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis).

John McTiernan’s film is simply a machine of a thriller, and that is also the best way to describe Rickman as Gruber – a sophisticated, educated and merciless monster, as he demonstrates to McClane (who’s watching in hiding) when Nakatomi CEO Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta) refuses to hand over the password to the vaults, and has his head blown off by Gruber.

Holly Gennero McClane: After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.
Hans Gruber: I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.

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Rutger Hauer as John Ryder in The Hitcher (1986)

Please, please, just forget Sean Bean in the same role in Dave Myers’ really rather bad 2007 remake – concentrate instead on just how good Hauer is as the titular force of nature in Robert Harmon’s superb original.

Choosing to ignore his mother’s advice that he shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers, young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up John Ryder in the middlev of a storm en route to California. Bemused at first by Ryder’s seeming unwillingness to talk or tell him where he wants to go, things get terrifying very quickly as Ryder reveals himself to be a murderous psychopath who has already killed his previous lift and now fully intends to do the same to Halsey. But he wants to torment and torture him first…

Neither Halsey nor we ever find out what Ryder’s motivations are and, given that he seems to be very hard to kill, a la Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), there is the suggestion that he may be something ‘more’ than human.

Jim Halsey: [despairing] Why are you doing this?
John Ryder: [takes two pennies, places them on Halsey’s closed eyes] You’re a smart kid. You’ll work it out.

Chilling.

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Alan Arkin as Harry Roat Jr. from Scarsdale in Wait Until Dark (1967)

I think this is my own contendor for best villain ever – as the unwitting mule for a doll stuffed with heroin, recently blinded Suzy Hendrix (a quite superb Audrey Hepburn) is targeted and terrorized by a trio of crooks, led by Roat, who are desperate to get their hands on the stash. The other two are merely largely harmless, muddling mugs, but Roat is a merciless killer, who will allow nothing, not even a seemingly defenceless blind girl, to stand in his way. And, although Terence Young’s film was not allowed to reveal Roat’s complete intentions towards Hendrix, she is a very attractive woman, and the subtext is quite clear.

Susy Hendrix: [trembling] All right, all right you can have it… you can have the doll! I’ll give it to you…if you’ll…if you’ll just go and…and…
Roat: Yes, Susy?
Susy Hendrix: Not hurt me.
Roat: Say please.
Susy Hendrix: Please.
Roat: No, that’s not quite it. Say: ‘Please may I give you the doll?’
Susy Hendrix: Please may I give you the doll?
Roat: You may.

Seriously, you’ll never look at ‘lovable’ Alan Arkin in quite the same way ever again.

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Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

In a family film? What were they thinking? Seriously, I don’t think I am alone in having being seriously damaged by my first viewings of this at my Grandma’s house over Christmas in the 1970s – Helpmann’s utterly vulpine face and truly scary entreaties (‘Lollipops…come along my little ones, lollipops’) would fool no-one, you would think, but Jemima Potts (Heather Ripley) and Jeremy Potts (Adrian Hall) fall into his clutches, at which point cinema’s most terrifying villain *ever* reveals his true intentions. Brrrrr.

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Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom (1960)

And a little sympathy for the devil, to finish – released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) Michael Powell’s disturbing and heartbreaking take on the voyeur in us all has Carl Boehm at its centre as lonely young man Mark Lewis who can only get his kicks while murdering young women on film, to capture their dying expressions. He got that way as a result of sadistic experiments on him conducted by his father (played by Powell in the film) when he was a young boy into the nature of fear and, as he shows at the film’s tragic end, he is willing to die for his art. A unique combination of fear and loathing – Boehm is just superb.

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Colin Moors

Colin reviews films. It's what he does.

5 thoughts on “Top 10 Movie Villains”

  1. Dear ‘Hannibal’, πŸ™‚

    A very warm welcome to Picturenose, sir, thank you for gracing us with your presence from wherever you are hiding at the moment.

    And I can only apologise on behalf of Colin and myself that you were not included in our Top 10 Movie Villains list, it’s just that we felt the most recent actor to play you, one Sir Anthony Hopkins, decided to play to the gallery way too much, particularly in the sequel (Hannibal (2001)) and prequel (Red Dragon (2002)) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991), don’t you agree?

    Indeed, I/we believe that time has been kindest to Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) – and Brian Cox’s performance in this is by far the superior account to date of your times and crimes. What do you think? Please, thrall us with your acumen… πŸ˜‰

  2. Oh, and please excuse me for not responding to your gracious invitation, Hannibal. I (and I am sure Colin also) would of course be delighted to pass a little time in your excellent company and enjoy your gastronomic delights – but only if you serve a nice Chianti, deal? πŸ˜‰

  3. Harry Roat Jr. is a really under-appreciated film villain. Every time I mention him no one has ever heard of the character – nice to see him get some recognition. πŸ™‚

  4. Hey Roland – welcome to Picturenose, thanks for your comment! πŸ™‚ I quite agree with you – while I did not put my choices in order of preference, I think that Roat Jr. may well be the best villain in cinema history. What does everyone else think? πŸ˜‰

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