Occasionally, a movie villain will pause for a moment to deliver a brief story or anecdote. And often, these apparently incidental tales tell us a lot about an antagonist’s state of mind, experiences or warped worldview.
We’ve compiled a selection of 20 here. Some of them are blackly funny. Many are disturbing. One or two are even moving. The first one’s very strange. All of them bring something unique to each particular film in which they appear, and all of them are laced with a delicious hint of menace.
20. Xander – Enemies Closer (2013)
“When I was a little boy at my grandmama’s place, she had a lovely goose. I named her Edith, after the French singer Edith Piaf…”
We begin with a delightfully weird story from Peter Hyams’ 2013 thriller, Enemies Closer. Unusually, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a villain here – the mop-haired drug boss Xander, who’s after a missing consignment of pharmaceuticals.
Midway through the film, Xander subjects a helpless old man to a very strange story about his childhood affection for a goose named Edith. “I truly loved that goose,” Xander tells us. But there’s a cruel twist to the tale: one day, Xander’s grandmother – who was clearly as crazy as Xander is – turned to her son at the dinner table and said, “Edith tastes good, no?”
“I puked up, I cried like a child,” Xander says. “Ever since, I became a vegan…”
19. Brick Top – Snatch (2000)
“You got to starve the pigs for a few days, then the sight of a chopped-up body will look like curry to a pisshead…”
There’s a distinct lack of poetry in this lecture from Brick Top (Alan Ford), but in the vulgarity lies the horror. As Brick Top talks, matter-of-factly and with great detail, about a pig’s ability to devour human flesh in the right circumstances, we gain a disturbing insight into just what a nasty piece of work the character is.
18. Raoul Silva – Skyfall (2012)
“So, how do you get rats off an island? Hmm? My grandmother showed me…”
Bond villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) tells us this story during his grand entrance near the start of Skyfall, and it tells us everything we need to know about him – his madness, his anger, his flamboyance. Silva’s tale also leads us to suspect that he shares the same sadistic grandmother as Xander in the entry above – who else would think of trapping rats in an oil drum for days on end, thus creating a new breed of cannibal rats trained to cleanse the island of their own kind? Once again, cruelty seems to run in the family; Silva soon proves to be as wily as his grandparent, as he leads Bond on a merry dance around England and Scotland.
Future events are all foreshadowed in Silva’s dark story. “Now they don’t eat coconut anymore. Now, they only eat rat. You have changed their nature. The two survivors – this is what she made us.”
17. Vincenzo Coccotti – True Romance (1993)
“Sicilians are great liars. The best in the world. I’m Sicilian. My father was the world heavyweight champion of Sicilian liars. From growing up with him I learned the pantomime. There are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give himself away. A guys got seventeen pantomimes. A woman’s got twenty, but a guy’s got seventeen… “
Christopher Walken’s gangster Vincenzo Coccotti only appears in one solitary scene in Tony Scott’s True Romance, but he makes every syllable of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay count. Here, he’s interrogating Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper), the luckless father of Clarence (Christian Slater), who’s accidentally skipped off with a huge consignment of drugs.
It’s unusual to see Hopper playing a relatively placid individual here, but it’s more fascinating still to see the sparks fly between two great actors. Walken’s “show and tell” speech is full of menace, and Hopper character, quickly realises that his days are numbered, counters with a story of his own – one expressly designed to enrage Coccotti as much as possible.
It’s a classic scene, with two stories delivered by two true acting greats. “I haven’t killed anybody since 1984…”
16. Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious – Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith (2005)
“Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith who lived many years ago. He was so powerful and so wise that he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying…”
The Star Wars prequels aren’t commonly remembered for the charisma of their stars of the quality of their acting, but Ian McDiarmid surely deserves props for his superb performance in the midst of a decidedly bumpy trilogy.
One of the highlights of Revenge Of The Sith is the scene in which McDiarmid’s Palpatine (known to his evil friends as Darth Sidious) tells Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) the tragedy of Darth Plagueis – a Sith lord with the power of life and death.
“He taught his apprentice everything he knew,” Palpatine says, “and then one night, his apprentice killed him in his sleep. It’s ironic that he could save others from death, but not himself. “
It’s grimly fascinating to see Palpatine’s intelligence at work here, as he nudges Anakin one step closer to the Dark Side while revealing to us a little more of his own villainous nature. While Palpatine doesn’t tell Anakin who Plagueis’s apprentice was, we can readily guess his identity.
McDiarmid, we’d argue, really doesn’t get enough credit for his work in the Star Wars movies.
15. Uncle Charlie – Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)
“You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”
For this writer, Shadow Of A Doubt is one of the best films Hitchcock ever made, and at its centre is a terrific performance from Joseph Cotten as the enigmatic Uncle Charlie – a seemingly affable ladies man with something darker lying at the corners of his character. In one late scene, Charlie reveals something of his true nature to his teenage niece, Charlotte (Teresa Wright) – and it’s a classic Hitchcock moment.
14. General Jack D Ripper – Dr. Strangelove (1964)
“Do you realise that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake. Children’s ice cream!”
Towards the end of Stanley Kubrick’s legendarily brilliant Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove, Stirling Hayden’s General Ripper lets the full extent of his mania slip: he’s sparked a nuclear war because he’s convinced that the Communists have been polluting America with fluoride.
Ripper goes on to explain to the ineffectual Mandrake (Peter Sellers) that the Communists have been attempting to pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans everywhere. Equally troubling, Ripper also appears to regard women as vampires; “women sense my power,” he says between puffs of his cigar, “they seek the life essence.”
“I do not avoid women, Mandrake,” Ripper hastily adds, “but I do deny them my essence.”
Thanks for clearing that up, General Ripper. Otherwise we might have thought you were weird or something.
13. Norman Stansfield – Leon (1993)
“I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It’s like when you put your head to the grass and you can hear the growin’ and you can hear the insects. Do you like Beethoven?”
Gary Oldman may have been typecast as a villain in the 1990s, but that’s because he was so good at playing them. Corrupt, pill-popping, psychopathic cop Norman Stansfield is among Oldman’s best creations – a bad guy who straddles the line between larger-than-life comic book charisma and outright menace.
Like “the calm before the storm,” as Stansfield puts it, we know he’s about to do something nasty when he starts wittering on about classical music – it’s just a case of waiting for the storm to begin. Like Hannibal Lecter and numerous other villains, Stansfield is defined by his divergent interests in high culture and old-fashioned, primal cruelty.
12. Gabriel, The Prophecy (1995)
“I’m an angel. I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls, and from now ’til kingdoms come, the only thing that you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.”
The outright brilliance of this quote really snaps into focus when you realise who says it – none other than Christopher Walken, who brings his demented charisma to the role of the archangel Gabriel, who’s descended to Earth in search of an evil lost soul. Whether he’s creepily teaching school kids to play the trumpet or menacing Elias Koteas’ detective with stories about his lips, Walken’s on superb form in The Prophecy.
11. John Doe – Seven (1995)
“On the subway today, a man came up to me to start a conversation. He made small talk, a lonely man talking about the weather and other things…”
In David Fincher’s masterfully dark suspense thriller Seven, the killer John Doe sends shivers down our spines before he’s even made his dramatic appearance. The quote above is an entry from one of the villain’s huge stack of diaries, and read out by Morgan Freeman’s world-weary detective William Somerset.
“I tried to be pleasant and accommodating,” Doe’s diary entry continues, “but my head hurt from his banality. I almost didn’t notice it had happened, but I suddenly threw up all over him. He was not pleased, and I couldn’t stop laughing.”
It’s an insight into the mind behind an increasingly disturbing state of murders – murders which, we later discover, are all part of a kind of sermon from John Doe. “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore,” Doe says of his hideous crimes. “You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”
10. Norman Bates – Psycho (1960)
“You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Norman Bates seemed like such a nice boy, too. But here, in this monologue delivered to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), there’s the first hint that there something’s not quite right with this apparently quiet, ordinary young motel proprietor. There’s that and his worrying collection of stuffed birds. Bates’ little story also draws a parallel between Crane – who’s in a trap of her own after stealing a bundle of money from work – and also Bates, who lives under the eye of his tyrannical mother. Well, sort of.
9. Colonel Hans Landa – Inglourious Basterds (2009)
“Where does the hawk look? He looks in the barn, he looks in the attic, he looks in the cellar, he looks everywhere *he* would hide, but there’s so many places it would never occur to a hawk to hide. However, the reason the Führer’s brought me off my Alps in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does occur to me. Because I’m aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.”
David Cronenberg once wrote that great cinema can be something as simple as two people talking. If you have Christopher Waltz on board, you can get a spectacular piece of cinema from a single monologue. The opening of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a masterpiece of suspense, and among the very best things the director’s ever put on the screen.
Waltz’s Colonel Landa embarks on his lengthy sermon to quietly terrified farmer, LaPadite. The audience knows that LaPadite is hiding a family of Jews in the house, and so too, we suspect, does Landa. The self-styled Nazi “Jew Hunter” lays out his horrifying ideology, which is all the more disturbing for his frank self-confidence. And all the while, we’re waiting – waiting – for the discovery to be made. Tarantino toys with us grimly, perhaps even testing himself to see how long he can string the scene out without letting the tension dip. Together with Waltz’s coiled performance, it’s an unforgettable scene.
8. The Joker – The Dark Knight
“You wanna know how I got these scars…?”
One of the best stories from a villain in recent years? Quite possibly. Heath Ledger’s tall tales about the origins of his scars contain the very essence of what makes him such a chilling character – both could be true or completely made up. Like Seven’s John Doe, The Joker’s ambiguous origins and motivations are what make him dangerous – we can never be sure what is true and what is a lie, and who the real person is beneath The Joker’s criminal facade.
So whether The Joker’s scars came from his maniacal father (“a drinker and a fiend”) or were self-inflicted (“I put a razor in my mouth and do this…”), the stories provide a glimpse into an unforgettably diseased psyche where murder, mutilation and humour are all bound up together.
“Why so serious?”
7. Calvin Candie – Django Unchained (2012)
“Now if I was old Ben, I would have cut my daddy’s goddamn throat, and it wouldn’t have taken me no fifty years to do it neither. But he never did. Why not?”
Django Unchained could be seen as a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, in that it introduces characters who use their own perverse ideology to oppress and kill other people. They may be from two separate countries and divided by a gulf of about 80 years, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J Candie, a Mississippi plantation owner, is essentially the same monster as Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa.
In Candie’s post-dinner monologue, we hear his supposed justification for his brutal treatment of slaves – and it’s all based on the bullshit science of phrenology. It’s a stomach-churning, horrible scene, and DiCaprio’s performance mesmerises from beginning to end.
6. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence Of The Lambs (1990)
“I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti…”
A villain’s story doesn’t have to be long to lodge in the memory, and flesh-eating former shrink Hannibal Lecter’s brief anecdote – told to a horror-struck Clarice Starling – is among the most quoted lines in movie history. The brilliance doesn’t just lie in the words, either – it’s a great fusion of performance and filmmaking. Anthony Hopkins delivers the lines with an almost beatific sense of pleasure, while director Jonathan Demme lingers on Lecter’s haunting expression. Like Hannibal, Demme’s camera doesn’t blink.
5. Harry Lime – The Third Man (1949)
“In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…”
I sometimes wonder whether screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker took a bit of inspiration from Carol Reed’s classic film noir The Third Man when he wrote Seven. Although the movies are poles apart, they both feature a villain who’s talked about for long stretches, but doesn’t pop up until the very end. In The Third Man, it’s Harry Lime, a cold-hearted criminal who sells stolen, diluted penicillin on the black market. Orson Welles is every inch the casual villain, writing off the lives of innocent people with a smirk – and, of course, the oft-quoted speech above.
4. Annie Wilkes – Misery (1990)
“I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!”
In the middle of Rob Reiner’s scintillating adaptation of Stephen King’s shocker, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) pauses to give us an anecdote about her favourite Saturday afternoon serial, Rocketman. Annie, we soon learn, is a stickler for continuity and suspension of disbelief in her storytelling – something which began in her childhood and has grown to murderous extremes in adulthood.
Annie’s tale of anger at her local cinema gives us a fresh insight into her obsessive nature – and the huge reservoir of anger lying under the placid surface. Novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has every right to look as terrified as he does.
Both performances are great (particularly Wilkes, who won an Oscar) but Barry Sonnenfeld deserves a nod for his cinematography – look at how he lets the camera gradually push in on Wilkes as she relates her rambling story, both heightening the tension and gradually allowing the lens to distort Bates’s face as her mania grows. Magnificent.
3. Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting – The Gangs Of New York (2002)
“The Priest and me, we lived by the same principles. It was only faith divided us. He gave me this, you know? That was the finest beating I ever took. My face was pulp. My guts was pierced, my ribs was all mashed up…”
Daniel Day Lewis’s villain Bill Cutting regales protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) with this charming tale about one of the many, many people he’s brutally killed. It’s an illustration of the brutality of life in 19th century Manhattan, as brought to the screen by Martin Scorsese, and the frightening lengths Cutting has gone to in order to survive in it.
“I cut out the eye that looked away, I sent it to him wrapped in blue paper. I would’ve cut them both out if I could have fought him blind. And I rose back up again with a full heart… and buried him in his own blood. He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”
2. Reverend Harry Powell – Night Of The Hunter (1955)
“Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand, left-hand? The story of good and evil?”
One of the great American thrillers of the 1950s, Night Of The Hunter was directed by Charles Laughton, the acclaimed actor. Laughton gets a spectacular performance from Robert Mitchum as Henry Powell, a serial killer who passes himself off as a preacher – despite the tattoos on his hands being something of a giveaway. In the scene above, Powell attempts to earn the trust of two young innocents by giving a religious slant to his “Love-Hate” tattoos – and making himself look even more scary in the process.
1. Colonel Kurtz – Apocalypse Now (1979)
“Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children…”
There must have been a point where Francis Ford Coppola wondered why he paid $1 million to have Marlon Brando appear in his Vietnam war opus. Coppola was forced to shoot Brando in virtual darkness to hide the actor’s unexpected weight gain. Brando didn’t bother to read Heart Of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad book on which Apocalypse Now is based, and didn’t memorise his lines – instead, he improvised his now famous speech.
Kurtz’s monologue was originally much longer – approximately 18 minutes – but Coppola edited it down to around two. The result is a classic, chilling piece of cinema – a glimpse into a moral abyss. Suddenly, Brando’s casting makes perfect sense.
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