Ask any actor and they’ll probably tell you they like to play the villain rather than the hero. Villains are more interesting and — let’s be honest — usually steal the movie from the hero.
Villains drive the action and emerge as worthy adversaries for the hero. Without a villain, the movies listed here would be… dull.
In most cases, especially in 1930s-era gangster dramas, the villain pays for his crimes. But sometimes he walks away scot-free, like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects. Some are purely evil, while others are just plain bonkers. (Yes, we’re looking at you Norman Bates.) One thing is for sure: none of these villains would be found in one of the best romantic comedies of all time.
The range of movie villains here is breathtaking, spanning from unrepentant murders and corrupt cops to mechanic sharks (Bruce in Jaws) and possibly ghosts (Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street). There are murderous housewives and queens, and faceless hunters. Some are based on real-life people, which makes their villainy even more disturbing. Despite their badness some elicit a measure of sympathy (like Baby Jane Hudson).
Whether they scare you or amuse you, villains make great movie viewing. Sit back and enjoy an escape to the dark side.
To identify the 50 most popular villains of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed the American Film Institute’s (AFI) The 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains. Casting and movie information also comes from the AFI.
Detective Alonzo Harris
> Portrayed by: Denzel Washington
> Appears in: Training Day (2001)
Usually cast as the good guy, Washington plays corrupt cop Alonzo Harris, who attempts to lure a cop he’s training (Jake Hoyt played by Ethan Hawke) into his nefarious underworld. It ends badly for Harris, but Washington walked away with an Academy Award for his against-type performance.
> Portrayed by: Gert Fröbe (voiced by Michael Collins)
> Appears in: Goldfinger (1964)
Auric Goldfinger (Fröbe) intends to corner the market on gold by blowing up Fort Knox. But he’s thwarted in the third installation of the Bond franchise by Bond, James Bond. Widely considered the best in the series, Goldfinger (voiced by Michael Collins rather than the German-born Fröbe) says one of the most memorable lines in the franchise’s history: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”
Roger “Verbal” Kint / Keyser Söze
> Portrayed by: Kevin Spacey
> Appears in: The Usual Suspects (1995)
Is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint (Spacey), a con artist with cerebral palsy, just a two-bit thief, or a fearsome murderous mobster known as Keyser Söze? The plot revolves around cocaine and a ship explosion. For his duplicitous performance, Spacey won an Academy Award.
> Portrayed by: Paul Muni
> Appears in: Scarface (1932)
Loosely based upon the life of Al Capone, Scarface traces the rise of brutal mobster Tony Carmonte (Muni) in the Chicago underworld. An unrepentant murderer, Tony blows away anyone in his path. He may also have some unnatural feelings for his sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Capone himself was said to admire the film.
> Portrayed by: Alan Rickman
> Appears in: Die Hard (1988)
German-born Hans Gruber (Rickman) commandeers the Nakatomi Plaza building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to steal $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds, only to have his elaborate plan thwarted by New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis). Although there is some argument over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not, there is universal agreement the late Alan Richman played one of the most elegant and memorable villains in movie history.
> Portrayed by: Jack Nicholson
> Appears in: Batman (1989)
Criminal nutjob Jack Napier (aka The Joker) battles with Batman for the soul of Gotham City. But for Batman (aka Bruce Wayne), this battle may be personal, as this version hints The Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. Nicholson plays him to the hilt with white makeup and a permanent sinister grin.
Baby Jane Hudson
> Portrayed by: Bette Davis
> Appears in: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Crazy lady Jane Hudson (Davis) tortures her sister Blanche (played by Joan Crawford) in this Hollywood Gothic horror movie. By film’s end, we understand the one-time child star (aka Baby Jane Hudson) may not be the real villain after all in this battle between the sisters. Adding spice to the proceedings is the real-life rivalry between Crawford and Davis, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.
> Portrayed by: Bette Davis
> Appears in: The Little Foxes (1941)
Rich, greedy Regina Giddens (Davis) hatches an elaborate plot to blackmail her brothers into giving her most of the family’s business. But her true villainy is revealed when she refuses to help her husband when he is in the throes of a fatal heart attack. Never one to play only nice ladies, Davis received an Academy Award for her performance.
> Portrayed by: James Cagney
> Appears in: The Public Enemy (1931)
Ambitious Irish mobster Tom Powers (Cagney) becomes a successful bootlegger during Prohibition-era Chicago. One of Warner Bros.’s studio first gangster movies, Cagney murders a rival gang member, but his smashing of a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face is what really made him a bad guy.
> Portrayed by: Faye Dunaway
> Appears in: Mommie Dearest (1981)
Based on the autobiography of her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, Mommie Dearest (aka Joan Crawford) paints a portrait of a controlling, abusive, and vindictive mother, a far cry from the carefully cultivated maternal image Crawford wanted to portray. Today, it’s best remembered for Dunaway’s campy, over-the-top performance, which won the dubious distinction as a “Razzie” for worst film performance that year. But the movie was nevertheless a triumph for wire hanger-haters everywhere.
> Portrayed by: Robert Englund
> Appears in: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
One of the first of the slasher horror films, Freddy Krueger (Englund) terrorizes a group of teenagers in a small Ohio town with a gaggle of knives wielded on a glove. In dreams and then in real life, Krueger kills the teenagers. Or does he? Is Kruger real? Or the ghost of a child murderer?
Cruella De Vil
> Portrayed by: Voice by Betty Lou Gerson
> Appears in: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Cruella De Vil may be an animated villain, and she is not a murderer. Yet what she does is much worse: She wants to kill cute Dalmatian puppies for their fur. That’s about as bad as you can get.
Caesar Enrico Bandello
> Portrayed by: Edward G. Robinson
> Appears in: Little Caesar (1931)
Caesar Enrico (Rico) Bandello (Robinson) aims to be a top mobster in Chicago’s crime world with the help of his best friend, who wants to go straight. The two men clash, and when Rico attempts to kill his friend, he shows some redeeming qualities and can’t do it. In the end, Rico pays for his crimes.
> Portrayed by: Orson Welles
> Appears in: The Third Man (1949)
At the beginning of this film noir classic, Harry Lime (Welles) is believed dead in post-WW2 Vienna. Later, we learn he was involved in some shady dealings during the war that left innocent people dead, and is still very much alive.
> Portrayed by: Dennis Hopper
> Appears in: Blue Velvet (1986)
Drug kingpin Frank Booth (Hopper) keeps a lounge singer as his sexual slave after kidnapping her husband and son. A college student tries to save her from the clutches of one of the most disturbing psychopaths in film history.
> Portrayed by: Burt Lancaster
> Appears in: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Based upon columnist Walter Winchell, J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) forces down-on-his luck press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to blackmail Hunsecker’s sister’s musician boyfriend in an effort to break them up. The plan goes awry, Falco pays for his crime, and morally bankrupt Hunsecker loses his sister.
> Portrayed by: Laurence Olivier
> Appears in: Marathon Man (1976)
Nominated for Academy Award for his performance, Laurence Olivier plays Dr. Christian Szell, a notorious Nazi war criminal searching for a cache of diamonds he can sell. An unwitting graduate student played by Dustin Hoffman throws a monkey wrench in that plan and gets some truly terrifying dental work in the process.
> Portrayed by: Bela Lugosi
> Appears in: Dracula (1931)
Bela Lugosi made a career out of playing the blood-sucking vampire, Count Dracula. Others have portrayed the daylight-shunning monster in other supernatural horror films, but no one has done it better.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker
> Portrayed by: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway
> Appears in: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Based on real-life partners in crime, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker robbed and murdered their way through Depression-era South and Midwest, only to have the law catch up to them in the movie’s final bloody scene. Beatty and Dunaway were nominated for the Academy Award for their lead roles, and Estelle Parsons won a best-supporting actress statue for her role as a reluctant and hysterical member of the gang.
> Portrayed by: Judith Anderson
> Appears in: Rebecca (1940)
Housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Anderson) can’t get over the death of her late mistress, Rebecca de Winter. She tortures Rebecca’s husband’s young bride, nearly driving her to taker her own life. Anderson received an Academy Award for her chilling performance, a better ending than Mrs. Danvers whose life literally went up in flames.
> Portrayed by: Robert De Niro
> Appears in: Taxi Driver (1976)
Loosely based upon Arthur Bremer and Lee Harvey Oswald, Taxi Driver tells the story of Vietnam veteran and New York cab driver Travis Bickle (De Niro), who is slowly losing his grip on reality. Bickle kills a pimp to save a child prostitute, and is declared a hero. Or is he a psychopath? Best remembered for the line, “Are you talking to me?”, De Niro was nominated for an Academy Award.
Reverend Harry Powell
> Portrayed by: Robert Mitchum
> Appears in: The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Loosely based upon Harry Powers, a minister and serial killer in 1930s West Virginia, Powell (Mitchum) pretends to be a preacher, but is actually a murderer who kills women for their money. After he attempts to swindle a widow out of her money, he murders her and threatens her orphaned children. The money is found to be hidden in a doll, but Powell won’t be seeing any of it as he is led away to jail.
> Portrayed by: Robert Mitchum
> Appears in: Cape Fear (1962)
Convicted rapist Max Cady (Mitchum, in another villainous turn) vows revenge on the lawyer Sam Bowden (played by Gregory Peck) who put him in jail. In this cat-and-mouse thriller, Cady nearly kills Bowden’s family, but is finally sent back to prison.
> Portrayed by: Various
> Appears in: The War of the Worlds (1953)
Martians land on earth, intent on destroying the planet. The U.S. government throws everything at them, including an atomic bomb, but nothing works. Only when the Martians emerge into the open air are they defeated by bacteria that humans have developed a resistance to. Made during the height of the cold war in the 1950s, the movie plays on audiences fears about an invasion from hostile forces, but it’s ending suggests a more recent history with terrifying germs.
> Portrayed by: James Cagney
> Appears in: White Heat (1949)
In one of Cagney’s most chilling roles, he plays psychotic killer Cody Jarrett who has an unnatural attraction to his mother. His wife kills his mother (it’s complicated), and he goes berserk, eventually leading to his final (literal) blow up.
> Portrayed by: Jack Nicholson
> Appears in: The Shining (1980)
Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) slowly goes insane in this psychological horror film. In an isolated hotel in the Colorado Rockies, Jack attempts to kill his wife and son, who is “shining” with the hotel’s previous occupants â a family killed by the father.
> Portrayed by: Michael Douglas
> Appears in: Wall Street (1987)
This movie captures the rise and eventual downfall of Wall Street titan Gordon Gekko. Michael Douglas won an Academy Award for uttering the line that summed up the late Reagan era: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
> Portrayed by: Anne Baxter
> Appears in: All About Eve (1950)
Sweet-faced Eve Harrington (Baxter) lies and schemes her way into the life of Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Her deceit is exposed, but not until her machinations bring her the success she craves. Baxter was nominated for an Academy Award for a performance that has become synonymous with backstabbing.
> Portrayed by: Arnold Schwarzenegger
> Appears in: The Terminator (1984)
Cyborg assassin The Terminator (who also appears on Heroes list) arrives in 1984 Los Angeles to hunt and kill the mother of future resistance leader, John Connor. The Terminator is actually a time traveler from 2029 â only eight years from now. Should we be scared?
Mrs. Eleanor Iselin
> Portrayed by: Angela Lansbury
> Appears in: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
In a departure from her usual sweet lady roles, Angela Lansbury won an Academy Award nomination for portraying Eleanor Iselin, a political schemer who plots to elevate her authoritarian Senator husband to president. She hatches a plan to do this by having her son, brainwashed by Communist Chinese soldiers during the Korean War, kill a presidential rival.
> Portrayed by: N/A
> Appears in: Bambi (1942)
OMG! HE KILLED BAMBI’S MOTHER. How many childhoods have been scarred by that scene?
> Portrayed by: Charles Laughton
> Appears in: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Based on a historical figure, Captain Bligh (Laughton) so alienates his ship’s English crew with his cruel behavior they eventually overthrow him. He matches wits with the Bounty’s Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who escapes Bligh by finding love and freedom on a South Seas island. Laughton received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
> Portrayed by: Bruce
> Appears in: Jaws (1975)
The Shark (nicknamed Bruce by the crew of the first summer blockbuster) terrorizes a small seacoast town. But, hey, a shark’s gonna do what a shark’s gonna do.
> Portrayed by: Kathy Bates
> Appears in: Misery (1990)
Annie Wilkes goes off the deep end when she learns the writer of her favorite novels, based on a woman named Misery, is about to be killed off by the author, Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan). She captures and nearly murders him, but he escapes. Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for her performance as the crazed fan.
> Portrayed by: John Huston
> Appears in: Chinatown (1974)
In this neo-Noir classic, private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) noses around into the corrupt dealings of Los Angeles powerbroker, Noah Cross (Huston). Gittes learns Cross’s corruption goes beyond a shady land scheme.
> Portrayed by: Ralph Fiennes
> Appears in: Schindler’s List (1993)
Uber-Nazi Amon Goeth (Fiennes) commands a concentration camp in Poland. He’s ruthlessly cruel, sometimes shooting prisoners from his balcony for sport. Based on a real person, Fiennes received an Academy Award nomination for his cold-hearted performance.
> Portrayed by: Bolaji Badejo
> Appears in: Alien (1979)
Played by 6′ 10″ Nigerian Bolaji Badejo in costume, the Alien runs amok on a spaceship, killing crew members. In the end, a heroic female crew member (Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver) triumphs over the Alien.
> Portrayed by: Voice of Douglas Rain
> Appears in: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, human-like computer HAL overtakes a spacecraft on its way to Jupiter to learn more about a mysterious monolith said to hold the secret to evolution. Two crew members try to disengage HAL, who has other ideas and wants to stay connected.
> Portrayed by: Malcolm McDowell
> Appears in: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Vicious gang member Alex DeLarge (McDowell) becomes the subject of an experiment by the British government to cure him of his sadism. Critics lamented the gory violence of the film, but it did ask a larger question: Does the government have the right to control minds, even that of criminals?
> Portrayed by: Al Pacino
> Appears in: The Godfather Part II (1974)
When we first meet Michael Corleone (Pacino) he wants nothing to do with his father’s business in the Mafia. But when his father is nearly offed in an assassination attempt, and other family members are killed, Michael decides to take care of all family business in the most brutal way possible. In this star-making turn, Pacino was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Evil Queen
> Portrayed by: Voice by Lucille La Verne
> Appears in: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Jealousy drives the Evil Queen to kill a beautiful rival, Snow White. When a hunter she ordered to do the job refuses to do it, the Queen poisons Snow White with an apple that puts her in a long slumber. A handsome prince awakens her with a kiss after Snow White’s trusted Seven Drafts force the Queen off a cliff.
Regan MacNeil (as possessed by demon “Pazuzu”)
> Portrayed by: Linda Blair (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge)
> Appears in: The Exorcist (1973)
Sweet-faced Regan MacNeil (Blair) starts acting strangely. No, she isn’t going through adolescence; she’s possessed by the Devil (voiced by McCambridge). Can two priests save the young girl? Blair was nominated for an Academy Award for her head-turning performance.
> Portrayed by: Barbara Stanwyck
> Appears in: Double Indemnity (1944)
Bored Los Angeles housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck) ropes a besotted insurance agent (Walter Neff played by Fred MacMurray) into a plot to “accidentally” kill her husband for his insurance payout. Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award, a better fate than Phyllis whose scheming ultimately failed.
> Portrayed by: Glenn Close
> Appears in: Fatal Attraction (1987)
Editor Alex Forrest (Close) can’t quit Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) after the two have what the married father Gallagher thought was a one-night stand. Forrest then proceeds to stalk his family and nearly kills his wife. Close received an Academy Award for her performance as a psychotic rabbit killer.
> Portrayed by: Lionel Barrymore
> Appears in: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Even this feel-good holiday classic has a villain — an unscrupulous banker named Mr. Potter (Barrymore) who tries to steal away the savings and loan owned by hero George Bailey (James Stewart). In the end, the town rallies around George, who realizes his life was wonderful after all.
> Portrayed by: Louise Fletcher
> Appears in: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Newcomer Louise Fletcher received an Academy Award for her performance as domineering Nurse Ratched who controls the patients in a mental ward with an iron fist, driving one to take his own life. Patient Randle Patrick McMurphy pretends to be crazy to escape a prison sentence, but soon finds himself in a war of wits with authoritarian Nurse Ratched.
The Wicked Witch of the West
> Portrayed by: Margaret Hamilton
> Appears in: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton) fights innocent Dorothy for a pair of ruby red slippers in the fantasy land of Oz. Aided by the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man, Dorothy throws water on the evil witch’s plan.
> Portrayed by: David Prowse (voiced by James Earl Jones)
> Appears in: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
In this sequel to the enormously successful Star Wars, we learn who Luke Skywalker’s father is â the Sith Lord Darth Vader who controls the evil Galactic Empire and the man Luke and Princess Leia have been battling for years. Rather than bonding with his long-lost Dad, Luke decides not to join the Dark Side.
> Portrayed by: Anthony Perkins
> Appears in: Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock revitalized his directing career with this thriller based loosely on murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. Perkins, meanwhile, made a career out of portraying conflicted protagonists, but his was never better as unhinged Norman Bates who had an unhealthy relationship with his mother. The movie is best remembered for one scene — yes, that scene — that so unnerved leading lady Janet Leigh she reportedly rarely took a shower again.
> Portrayed by: Anthony Hopkins
> Appears in: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Former psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter helps FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in her pursuit of another serial killer, “Buffalo Bill,” who murders and skins young women. Both leads won Academy Awards for their performances in this psychological thriller that shouldn’t be accompanied by a meal of fava beans and liver.
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