Our yearly tradition that cites the “Greatest ___ of All-Time” begins once again with a look at the baddest guys and gals of the silver screen. Each writer will deliver their own set of ten, likely with all different interpretations of “the villain” and what they mean. If you miss one, click on the tag “10 Greatest Villains of All-Time.“
It’s so much fun to be bad. At least that’s what the great villains in film history make it look like. While we hold cinema’s all-time great heroes up on a pedestal, everyone holds a special place in their heart for their favorite villains. Some of my fellow Award Circuit writers have already shared their list of all-time great villains and now I reveal my big bad top ten.
But before we get in to that, what makes a great villain? Is it their cruelty; their fiendish plots; their villainous laugh? Those all help make a villain, but there’s a single thing that all great villains have in common – they believe that they are taking the best course of action. Every antagonist views themselves as the protagonist of their own story. A villain who admits to being the embodiment of evil is actually a pretty boring thing.
Also, for the purpose of this list, I’m excluding anti-heroes. That means no Michael Corelone, Travis Bickle or even recent entries like Daniel Plainview or Louis Bloom from “Nightcrawler.” The reason being is that they are the protagonist of that particular story; that doesn’t make them good guys and they may fail or fall into dark places, but they are, for better or worse, the heroes of their films.
So, let’s get this thing rolling with my number 10 entry for greatest villain of all-time.
10. The Wicked Witch of the West – The Wizard of Oz
Of all the villains on my list, the Wicked Witch of the West fits the least with the prerequisites I laid out in the intro, but the character and the performance from Margaret Hamilton have etched themselves in film lore so it’s near impossible not to include her. The Wicked Witch essentially established the template for what scary witches look like; with the cackle, the green skin and her flying monkey henchman and it’s a recipe for giving little kids nightmares. Plus, she does have her reasons for going after Dorothy – the visitor from Kansas did kill her sister and doesn’t truly know the power of the ruby slippers she wears. She may have met her fate from a bucket of water, but the legend of the Wicked Witch of the West is harder to erase.
9. Hans Landa – Inglourious Basterds
Everyone on this list is a fictional character and can’t truly compare to the real-life villains that the Nazis were. But that just makes Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa so much more unsettling, because we’re actually somewhat charmed by this particular Nazi. Tarantino has written some strong villains, but Landa is his piece de resistance. Landa is able to lure you into a false sense of security and then absolutely destroy it. Few villains showed the full depth of their depravity as quickly or as elegantly as Hans Landa did in the first moments of “Inglorious Basterds.”
8. Amazing Amy – Gone Girl
During the era of film noir, femme fatales were a critical ingredient in nearly all the classics. “Double Indemnity’s” Phyllis Dietrichson and the eponymous ladies in “Gilda” and “Laura” are just some of the greats, but perhaps one of the best femme fatales came along more than 50 years after film noir faded from prominence. Amy Dunne, otherwise known as “Amazing Amy,” belongs in any conversation of the great femme fatales and thanks to a brilliant performance from Rosamund Pike she is worthy of being considered the best. Smart and ruthless, Amy makes every bump in “Gone Girl” work in her devious direction, proving herself cunning and cold hearted. Pike’s Amazing Amy fits nicely among film’s other villainous ladies.
7. Boris Lermontov – The Red Shoes
I wanted to include J.K. Simmons’ searing performance as the torturous jazz instructor Fletcher from last year’s “Whiplash,” but I found myself coming back to a similar character instead, Boris Lermontov from Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes.” Lermontov is a demanding producer of an internationally recognized ballet and orchestra. When he discovers a talented young ballerina he pushes her to be great with the performance of the ballet “The Red Shoes.” His methods are not as extreme as Fletchers to be sure, but Lermontov’s actions are perhaps more grave. He attempts to posses the ballerina and remove all distractions of life, like love or family, as they do not serve her as a dancer. Lermonotv not only causes psychological abuse, but he eventually has a hand in driving the girl to her death. Fletcher may be a nasty customer, but Lermonotv set the bar.
6. The Shark – Jaws
The Shark in “Jaws” is just hungry, but never before did a case of hunger pangs cause so much fear. All the shark does is eat, but that single-mindedness was enough to create a fear for the water for the beachgoers of 1975. “Jaws” is also one of the great villain reveals, as its almost two-thirds of the movie before we get the money shot, and boy was it worth it. The mystery of this monster was built and then paid off tremendously. However, that wasn’t the initial plan, as the shark was not just a villain in the film, but one to director Steven Spielberg. The original plan was to have the shark visible from the beginning, but the robotic shark rarely worked, forcing Spielberg and his crew to adapt. A mistake helped create one the great silver screen terrors.
5. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter isn’t even the main villain in “Silence of the Lambs” but he’s the one that brings goosebumps with lines like “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” and “I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Lecter is such a great villain we have multiple versions of him that are all stellar. Even before Anthony Hopkins played him, Brian Cox portrayed him in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter and now Mads Mikkelsen is doing a great job on the underrated NBC show “Hannibal.” Still, Hopkins’ Lecter is the quintessential version of the character and easily among the greatest villains of all-time.
4. HAL 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is a well of interesting ideas and stunning images, but what always grabs the attention of audiences – outside of the great score – is the all-time great A.I. villain, HAL. The monotone voice, the unblinking red light, HAL is a cold-hearted machine, or so it seems. HAL may be the antagonist of the film’s second act, but he is fighting for his life just like his human counterparts. What makes HAL such a tremendous threat is that there is nowhere for the protagonists to run; he controls the ship and outside of it is the nothingness of space. Perhaps the best thing about HAL however, is how he gets us to feel for him as he is defeated. With his chilling, fading rendition of “Daisy,” this super intelligent creation, albeit a fiendish one, is reduced to nothing. The battle of man vs. machine has been a popular source for films and literature for a long time and “2001” certainly gave us one for the ages.
3. The Joker – The Dark Knight
Like Lecter, the Joker is a character that has seen multiple iterations, each one wildly different from the last, but each quite effective. However, I’m going to single out Heath Ledger’s turn as the clown prince of crime. Ledger’s Joker may be the most effective villain to personify the post-9/11 world. A self described agent of chaos, we never knew how the Joker would strike, the only thing that was clear is that there was no motive, as Michael Caine’s Alfred put it best “some men just want to watch the world burn.” It’s a terrifying idea and unfortunately not too far off of how some news stories feel like these days. But Ledger’s performance is what makes this a truly great villain. The actor was fearless in his portrayal and as a result scared the living crap out of us. When most super villains have god-like abilities or are ransoming the entire world, the Joker brought Batman and Gotham to its knees with some drums of gasoline and a magic pencil.
2. Nurse Ratchet – One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
Doctors and nurses are some of the most respected professions out there. We have a natural trust in them. That association we naturally have makes Nurse Ratchet from “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” a more terrifying villain. It’s not even that she does anything to purposefully harm the men that she cares for in the ward, instead it is the way she twists that relationship we hold onto that makes her a villain. She holds a position of power over the patients and is unrelenting in keeping that power under the guise of help. When she is faced with the rebellious nature of McMurphy she tries to contain him and marginalize him, going further and further until they eventually lobotomize him, making him unable to fight anymore. In Nurse Ratchet we discover a character who we naturally put our trust in as a guide and a healer, but instead we learn that trust was gravely misplaced.
1. Darth Vader – The Empire Strikes Back
The costume; the breathing; the theme song; the menacing voice of James Earl Jones, it’s all a perfect storm of factors to make Darth Vader the greatest villain of all-time. From the first moment we meet him in “A New Hope” we know that this is the villain. And I have to disagree with my colleague Joseph Braverman on how the more we learn about Vader the more it dilutes him as a villain – at least in the sense of “The Empire Strikes Back” as that is his shining moment. As I mentioned at the top, a villain who simply embodies pure evil isn’t actually that great because it’s too simple, but as Vader’s mask (pun intended) is pulled back, we learn that he is not just a machine created to spread fear, but a man who had to become the villain that he is.. Vader may redeem himself in the end, but he will always be first remembered as a villain – in my opinion, the greatest one ever on the big