When you think of your great villains, your Darth Vaders, your Jokers, your Hannibal Lecters, who stands out? It boils down to one thing: showmanship. Whether it is in terms of appearance, personality, or action, characters like these hog the spotlight. When they are onscreen, you cannot take your eyes off them.
In forming this list, I found that I was gravitating toward characters who lacked this kind of showmanship. Maybe the title of this article should have been ‘understated.’ While there are a few on this list who you could count as flamboyant (and one played by Gary Busey), on the whole, the characters on these list prefer to hide in the shadows where they can hide their deeds and plot their next scheme. They’re the kind of people you would not expect. The kind you would overlook.
Let’s illuminate them, shall we?
25. Sam Wilde, Born to Kill (Robert Wise, 1947)
Today, if he is remembered at all, Lawrence Tierney is known as the fatherly gang boss behind the botched heist in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). In the late 1940s, Tierney made his name on a series of poverty row thrillers and crime dramas in which he essayed variations on his amoral shithead persona. None was more successful than his role in this surprisingly bleak and nasty film noir.
An unhinged psychopath with an eye for the ladies and the good life, Sam Wilde introduces himself to the viewer by stalking an old flame home and battering her to death with a bottle after he catches her on a date (the date doesn’t get out of the encounter either). Obsessed with enriching himself, Sam manages to control his temper long enough to ensconce himself into the life of a wealthy young debutante, but not before he’s hooked up with an icy femme fatale (Claire Trevor) with her own designs on the young woman’s fortune.
However, with his poor impulse control and compulsion to ultra violence, Sam is no innocent fall guy, as Trevor learns to her detriment.
24. Harry Sledge, Supervixens (Russ Meyer, 1975)
Primarily well known for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Russ Meyer is famous (or infamous) for his Looney Toon sexploitation features of the ’60s. Generally, Meyer’s movies are well remembered for their shameless objectification of his leading ladies and, bizarrely, their empowerment of these characters. The Meyer woman is a buxom ubermensch who ploughs through anyone who gets in her way and won’t take shit from a man.
With 1975’s Supervixens, Meyer shifted gears into darker territory and created an evil male counterpart to his Amazonian leading ladies, a grinning psychopath by the name of Harry Sledge. Played by character actor Charles Napier (most recognizable as Murdock in Rambo II), Sledge is a tour-de-force of misogyny and impotent rage. With his lantern jaw and too-wide grin, Sledge resembles a cartoon of machismo — Johnny Bravo by way of Travis Bickle.
A deranged cop with a vendetta against anything without a Y chromosome, Sledge is unlike anything else in the Meyer canon. Introducing himself by gleefully stomping a woman to death in her bathtub, Sledge is a terrifying presence who stands as one of the most underrated monsters of ’70s exploitation cinema.
23. The Truck, Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
There are occasional flashes of the truck’s occupant, but for all intents and purposes, the truck itself becomes the villain of this, Steven Spielberg’s first TV film (and first feature release, since the film was expanded and released to theaters outside the U.S.). For an inanimate object, Spielberg manages to get a lot of personality out of this machine.
With its large grill and headlights, the truck has what amounts to a permanent grin, appropriate since its pursuit of Dennis Weaver’s increasingly alarmed driver betrays a sadistic glee in the truck driver who is pushing the poor man to the brink of insanity. Outside of Weaver, the truck displays an ability to improvise—especially in a darkly comedic scene where Weaver, terrified of his enemy, abandons a stranded school bus, which the truck then helps back on the road.
By the time the foes have their final confrontation, the truck has attained the status of a mythical beast, an elemental force that Weaver must destroy if he is to make it out of the desert heat. An unforgettable creation from legendary writer Richard Matheson and an early plaudit for Spielberg, the truck from Duel punches far above its weight to become a genuinely menacing and unlikely movie monster.
22. The Aliens, They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
“What’s the threat? We all sell out every day. Might as well be on the winning team.” The most insidious villains John Carpenter ever created, ‘They’ are an alien race who have covertly taken over the planet. Though they have brainwashed the populace and boast futuristic technology, their chief weapon is human greed. As long as people are distracted by the latest fashions, celebrities, and popular trends, ‘they’ do not have to do anything.
If anyone stands against them, they can be bought. Or locked up. A satirical takedown of Reagan’s America, the aliens in They Live are basically intergalactic super-capitalists. They just want their slice of the pie—rather than spaceships and lasers, they merely co-opt humanity’s potential for excess and selfishness to their own ends.
21. Quaritch, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
All of James Cameron’s villains operate on the same set of principles. They all have a simple objective; they are highly capable of achieving this objective; and they will pull out all the stops to attain their objective. Whether it is the Terminator, the Alien Queen, the terrorists in True Lies, or Michael Biehn’s deranged Navy Seal in The Abyss, all of these characters embody these three principles.
Miles Quaritch fulfils these principles to a tee. Basically a dark revision of the Colonial Marines Cameron introduced in Aliens, Quaritch is a refreshingly uncomplicated antagonist in an era where every blockbuster must have a villain with a ridiculously over-complicated scheme (The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall). Quaritch just wants to wipe out an entire species.
One moment in particular cements Quaritch’s status in Cameron’s filmography—as his transport falls toward the planet’s surface, Quaritch marches down to the hold, straps himself into a combat suit, jumps out of the transport and lands while his ship crashes behind him. He does all this while on fire. For sheer batshit dedication, Miles Quaritch deserves more credit as one of the more relentless villains to come along in the last couple years.
20. Milo, The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991)
An unlikely reposte to Bruce Willis’s brand of blue collar machismo, the sadly departed Taylor Negron lends the villain of this Joel Silver production an effete, well-tailored precision that makes Milo the most effective antagonist Willis has faced since Alan Rickman in Die Hard. In an age of hard bodied heroes and villains, Milo stands out like a sore thumb.
An unstoppable killing machine with none of the macho posturing or leather duds one would expect, Milo saunters through Tony Scott’s film with the slightly dis-interested air of a mid-level executive. Trading quips and bullets with equal ease, he proves to be the equal of Willis’ disgraced secret agent. The depths of Milo’s real, unpleasant personality only come out during a sublimely dark exchange where he threatens to show Willis’ 13-year old daughter “what a hot date I am.” A testament to the inventiveness of uber-screen writer Shane Black, Milo’s place in the Willis rogues gallery has sadly been overshadowed by Hans Gruber.
19. Mr. Joshua, Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
Before Commander Krill, before Celebrity Apprentice, before those barmy Amazon Fire adverts, there was Mr. Joshua. Granted, Gary Busey already had a career (and an Oscar nomination), but his role in this seminal action flick gave him a second wind as a big screen crazy (and Gingerdead Man).
Mr. Joshua starts out as an evil doppelgänger to Mel Gibson’s tortured super cop Martin Riggs. Another Vietnam veteran with a special forces background, Joshua is, unlike Riggs, able to channel his craziness into his work. Whether self-immolating his hand or engaging Riggs in an utterly pointless fist fight in front of an army of cops, Mr. Joshua is up for anything.
Even when his boss’ plan goes up in smoke, Joshua, ever proactive, goes straight to Riggs’ partner Murtuagh (Danny Glover)’s home to massacre his family on Christmas Eve. If Joshua’s going to get caught, it might as well be for something truly horrific.
18. Necros, The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)
There is a good case to be made that Necros is the last genuinely threatening henchman in the Bond franchise. Lacking any gimmicks or physical idiosyncrasies, Necros is just very, very good at his job. From his one-man assault on an MI6 safe house to his final vertigo-inducing battle with Timothy Dalton’s 007, Necros is so formidable that Bond’s survival is always in doubt.
For a good portion of the movie, Necros is the only villain, moving around Europe and picking off MI6 agents. Unlike most Bond henchmen, Necros can move around with relative anonymity and is capable of orchestrating complex operations, such as the raid on the safe house or rigging some electronic sliding doors to become a murder weapon. Combining brawn and brains, Necros is the most imposing antagonist the series has produced since the ’60s.
17. Félix Cortez, Clear and Present Danger (Philip Noyce, 1994)
The third of the Jack Ryan series features a story in which Ryan (Harrison Ford) uncovers international wrongdoing at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Simultaneously, it is the story of how Felix Cortez, a freelance intelligence operative, manipulates this situation to gain control over a major Columbian drug cartel. In contrast to Ryan’s middle-aged suburban family man, Cortez is a debonair ladykiller with a taste for the finer things and a ruthless approach to achieving his goals. Always playing both sides for his own gain, he is a combination of James Bond and Richard III.
Recognizing the benefit of U.S. strikes on the cartels, Cortez lets the operation play out until he is in a position to move against his employer. Callously using everyone around him, Cortez’s complete lack of principles makes him a deliciously immoral presence in a movie otherwise filled with furrowed eyebrows and Harrison Ford angrily pointing his finger.
16. Mad Dog, The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2011)
Mad Dog deserves a spot on this list simply based on the final battle alone — taking on our two heroes at the same time, Mad Dog takes an improvised spear to the chest and still kicks the holy heck out of their collective ass.
The most hardcore and badass character to emerge from Gareth Evans’ action palooza, Mad Dog is so relentless and balls out crazy that he deserves his own series. Due to the speed with which he dispatches his foes, this franchise would have to be a series of hilariously violent vines.
15. The Jackal, Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann, 1973)
A bland, unmemorable face and stuffy, boring voice provide the perfect mask for the world’s deadliest assassin. Actor Edward Fox might bristle at my description, but his nondescript looks and manner are perfect for the role of the Jackal, a hired killer charged with assassinating French President Charles de Gaulle.
Even when his employers have been caught, and the police are on his trail, the Jackal remains a few steps ahead of his pursuers. With his penchant for disguises and performance, the Jackal is a cipher, capable of moving anywhere without raising alarm. Meticulous in his preparation, and completely cold blooded in his actions, it is a tribute to the Jackal’s implacability that, despite the fact that the real de Gaulle was dead long before the film’s release, the fate of the Jackal’s target remains up in the air until the film’s painfully tense conclusion.
14. William Stryker, X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003)
Still one of the best comic book antagonists of the last two decades, William Stryker is the rare villain with understandable, though repugnant, motivations. A homo sapien twin to mutant villain Magneto, Stryker is obsessed with saving his own species. Indeed, like Magneto, he is a victim in his own right — the subject of his telepathic son’s mind games, he was forced to watch his wife lobotomize herself with a drill to escape their offspring once and for all.
Of course, it could be that Stryker is simply a bigot who has embroidered this backstory to make his actions understandable. In any case, his plan to use the mutants’ own powers against them is well thought out and he carries out every aspect of his plan with precision and unwavering dedication. And Stryker remains the one X-Villain who came the closest to wiping the X-Men out once and for all. Not bad for a human.
13. Blofeld, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)
Not as iconic as Donald Pleasance’s incarnation, nor as camp as Charles Gray’s, Telly Savalas provides James Bond with the most formidable edition of his most persistent foe. Combining brains and brawn, he is the rare antagonist who poses a genuine threat to the secret agent. He does not need any henchman to do his dirty work, and is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with 007.
Further differentiating himself from the series’ other villains, Savalas lends the role a droll sensuality that reinforces Blofeld’s personal magnetism — you can believe a cult of lunatics would follow this guy into the pit of hell. Savalas’ Blofeld also retains one distinction no one else has managed: he wins. While not as grandiose as taking over the world, shooting Tracy Bond dead on her wedding day remains the most emotionally devastating sequence in the series and places Blofeld-Savalas in a category all by himself as the most hateful antagonist in Bond’s rogues gallery.
12. Owen Davian, Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006)
The one stand out component of a rather by-the-numbers entry in one of Hollywood’s most inconsistent franchises, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as the sociopathic arms dealer facing off against Tom Cruise remains the best antagonist of the series.
Lacking one-liners, distinguishing physical traits, or even real emotions, Davian is a genuine cold fish — he just wants to do business. Completely disinterested in dragging anything out, he is a refreshingly direct and brutal adversary who has no patience for the usual drawn out monologues and elaborate torture which have defined most action movie villains.
11. Hannibal Lecter, Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)
A complete 180 from Anthony Hopkins’ much parodied, Oscar winning version, Brian Cox delivers a Lektor (respelled as Lektor for some reason) with none of the tics or cadence of his successor. Cox’s Lektor is a completely cold, alien presence — he gives nothing away while taking perverse delight in probing the frail psyches of his visitors.
Unlike Hopkins, who plays Lecter with a vibrance and energy that emphasizes the character’s intelligence, Cox affects a facade of mental ineptitude — he’s like the smart kid in class who plays the substitute teacher for a chump. While he boasts only a short amount of screen time, Cox’s mocking poker face proves a memorable and unsettling contrast to the character’s more well known incarnation.
10. Loco, The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1967)
No list of bad ‘uns would be complete without a look-in from real life lunatic Klaus Kinski. Before he became Werner Herzog’s muse, Kinski was a familiar face in Spaghetti Westerns (he played opposite Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More), playing heroes and villains alike.
While Kinski is on record as saying that he only accepted roles based on the size of the paycheque, in Loco, he found a character that stands alongside the studies in megalomania he would create with Herzog. Loco is a bounty hunter in the old West, who is willing to use any means to bring down his quarries. With his cadaverous face beneath a monk-like hood, he resembles a vampire. In many ways he is – preying on the weak to line his pocket, with the dubious authority of the law to legitimise his brutal excesses.
Whether it’s kidnapping a fugitive’s family, or drowning an uncooperative sheriff in a frozen lake, Loco is far more unscrupulous than the people he is hunting. Usually you would expect such a despicable character to come to a suitably horrible end at the hands of a monosyllabic gunslinger. Sadly, Loco is too smart for that, and initiates what has to be the bleakest third act of any western.
Not satisfied with crippling the hero, he kills him, his girlfriend, and then massacres a bar full of chained prisoners, before riding off into the sunset in a parody of the typical western ending. Remorseless in its brutality, the climax to The Great Silence stamps its claim as one of the great Italian westerns, with Loco as one of the genre’s most haunting villains.
9. Bob Rusk, Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)
Bob Rusk is the last of the great Hitchcock villains. With the Production Code dead, Hitch was under no restraints to hold back on the depravity he had previously eluded to, and Rusk emerges as the most explicitly debauched character he ever created. The sequence where Rusk rapes and strangles a woman in her office is highly controversial and with good reason — unlike the shower scene in Psycho, Hitchcock never cuts away. Unglamorous, not particularly charismatic, and troublingly realistic, Rusk bears almost no resemblance to the more iconic villains that preceded him — even Norman Bates is more inherently sympathetic than Rusk.
During the murder scene or the following sequence in which he has to break a corpse’s fingers to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence, Rusk comes across as an unrefined buffoon who has only been able to get away with his crimes because of sheer, dumb luck.
8. Street Thunder, Assault On Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)
The gang at the heart of this urban thriller is often overlooked in favor of John Carpenter’s more well known villains, like Michael Myers and The Thing. Yet, Street Thunder is arguably the most frightening.
Terrifyingly random and wanton in its violence, the gang acts like a hive mind — none of its individual members are given much personality, and all show a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their (unstated) cause. They resemble zombies more than human beings. From the start, Carpenter pulls no punches in showing just how inhuman they can be — in the most viscerally shocking moment of Carpenter’s career, they shoot a child point-blank in the chest.
With their complete indifference to pain and death, Street Thunder’s maniacal assault on the titular police station never feels as ludicrous as it should be.
7. The Scorpio Killer, Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)
Credited simply as ‘Killer’ in the credits, Andy Robinson’s off-the-wall performance as the deranged madman of Harry Callahan’s debut rises far above his bland screen credit. Inspired by the ‘Zodiac’ killings which plagued San Francisco in the early ’70s, the Scorpio Killer has absolutely no redeeming qualities. Raping, shooting, stabbing and cackling his way across the city, the Scorpio killer is so over-the-top in his evil that he completely justifies ‘Dirty’ Harry’s actions.
With his babyface, blue eyes, and curly hair, the Scorpio Killer looks nothing like the monster one would expect, and Robinson’s go-for-broke performance gives the rather routine story a random, dangerous energy. A complete contrast to Eastwood’s minimalism, Robinson’s elevated presence makes him a worthy foe for the former cowboy. In their binary relationship, their dynamic is reminiscent of Batman and the Joker — especially in the Scorpio Killer’s love for random violence and lack of ideology.
He is a force of nature that only Harry can stop. While the sequels would twist themselves into all kinds of knots trying to find enemies that could justify Harry’s violence, none of the Scorpio Killer’s successors achieved the same kind of impact.
6. Albert DeSilva, The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968)
Tony Curtis blows his nice guy image out of the water with his multifaceted performance as a schizophrenic serial killer. While the multiple personality subplot has no basis in reality, Curtis is never less than totally convincing as Albert.
Switching between confused everyman and cold-blooded killer, Curtis turns Silva into a pathetic figure, a sick man in serious need of treatment. Introduced over halfway into this true-crime drama, it is a testament to Curtis’s talents that he manages to overcome the depravity of the Strangler’s crimes to generate any kind of empathy for DeSilva.
The final interrogation scene, in which DeSilva is finally able to recall his crimes, is a tour de force. In a daze, he acts out how one of the murders takes place and even shows pleasure at it as he mimes strangling his victim, before regaining consciousness and staring at his closed hands in horror.
Curtis hoped that this performance would be his ticket to more complex, challenging roles — sadly, this performance would mark the last great role in his career.
5. Harry Roat Jr, Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)
In his novel-sized essay Danse Macabre, Stephen King ranks Alan Arkin’s performance in this underrated thriller just behind Peter Lorre’s in Fritz Lang’s Mas one of the best cinematic depictions of human evil onscreen. I cannot go that far, but there is no denying the unnerving menace Arkin brings to the role.
Indeed, there is something genuinely unsettling about Roat from the first moment he steps into frame. The blank eyes, the half-smile permanently across his face, the lack of wasted motion – he comes across as a machine, completely focused on the task at hand.
As a drug pusher, he blackmails two minor con artists into helping him retrieve a stash of heroin from the basement apartment of a recently blinded woman (Audrey Hepburn). Completely unconcerned about his actions, Roat displays a fiendish, almost inhuman ability to entrap anyone unlucky enough to fall into his web.
Even when his accomplices betray him, Roat has already made contingency plans to remove them. Arkin’s completely despicable performance obliterates Hepburn’s reassuring presence, and gives Wait Until Dark a cruel, bleak tone that elevates the film above the gimmicks of its Gaslight-style narrative.
4. Colonel Franz von Waldheim, The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)
Played by the late, great Paul Scofield, von Waldheim makes for an intriguing nemesis in this excellent World War II action film. A Nazi officer obsessed with European art, he commandeers a supply train to make off with a stockpile of art treasures he has gathered.
Initially, von Waldheim comes across as the embodiment of the Nazi archetype – cold and ruthless, with no sense of humanity. However, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that even his superiors and subordinates are not as invested in stealing the art as he is. As the train slowly makes its way toward the border, hampered on all sides by the French saboteurs and military bureaucracy, von Waldheim’s increasingly maniacal obsession with the art overtakes any other consideration — even the lives of his soldiers.
By the end of the film, a completely deranged von Waldheim has been abandoned by his men in the wreckage of the train. A victim of his own hubris, von Waldheim has left such a trail of destruction in his wake that, even after his death, von Waldheim has single-handedly reduced the worth of his precious cargo to nothing.
3. Diane Tremayne, Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1952)
Jean Simmons always seemed destined for stardom, but never managed to break out. A pity, since her gleefully malevolent performance in the icy noir Angel Facesuggests she could have been a contender. On the surface, Simmons is playing yet another variation on Phyllis Dietrichson from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) – a cold, calculating femme fatale. However, like everything else in Preminger’s film, this cliche is quickly undermined.
Simmons embodies Diane as an immature child-woman, with little control over her own actions. Unlike so many other femme fatales, she genuinely falls for the man (Robert Mitchum) whose help she needs in her scheme. Unlike her predecessors, she completely botches her scheme – while trying to murder her rich, controlling stepmother, she inadvertently kills her father as well. She loses her mind and has to have everyone else dig her way out of jail time.
By the end of the movie, she has gained everything she wants but has lost all interest in enjoying it. A perverse, unpredictable re-write of a genre archetype, and a great showcase for the underrated Jean Simmons.
2. John Christie, 10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer, 1971)
Usually, Richard Attenborough’s role as the gangster Pinky in Brighton Rock (1947) is held up as his best flirtation with the dark side. However, even that character cannot hold a candle to Attenborough’s sublime work as real life nutjob John Christie.
Centred around the miscarriage of justice which saw a mentally disabled man Timothy Evans (played by John Hurt) executed for Christie’s crimes, 10 Rillington Placeboasts Attenborough’s most relentlessly unsympathetic performance.
Completely unrecognizable as the infamous serial killer, Attenborough provides the black, beating heart of Richard Fleischer’s bleak crime drama. His quiet, dead-eyed performance is constantly discomfiting — Attenborough plays Christie with the grace of a ballet dancer, always balancing between the calculating, sexually repressed monster and the terrified, self-aware victim of his own base desires.
By injecting a dose of humanity into Christie, Attenborough makes him even creepier and prevents him from turning into a two-dimensional villain. In fact, it is a credit to this duality that Christie’s crimes become even more heinous — even though he appears repulsed by himself, Christie refuses to stop. Especially when slow-witted Tim Evans and his young family arrive on his doorstep looking for a flat.
The pre-meditated way Christie goes about ingratiating himself with Tim’s wife (Judy Geeson) and then manipulates Tim Evans to leave his family in Christie’s care is a masterclass in pre-meditated evil and cements Attenborough’s place as one of the great screen monsters.
1. Uncle Charlie, Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
On the surface, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is almost boringly conventional. Good looking, successful, and beloved uncle to his sister’s family, Charlie is a caricature of old fashioned white American masculinity. But beneath this exterior lurks a calculating killer who is currently on the run from the police.
Holding the distinction of being the earliest example of the psychopaths Alfred Hitchcock would return to again and again, Uncle Charlie bears little resemblance to the screen psychos we have come to know. Charlie is never shown killing anyone, and he does not have the kind of star charisma of a Hannibal. He is just another regular guy you would pass on the street.
Oscillating between smirking confidence and morose self-awareness, Charlie is an ambiguous figure whose motivations remain troublingly obscure – does he really love his family or is he just using them as a cover till the police get off his trail? Is the bond he shares with his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) a cover for more unsavory, unspoken desires?
Played with marvellous understatement by Cotten, Uncle Charlie has sadly been overshadowed by the later, more iconic psychos Hitchcock would portray in the ’50s and ’60s. However the influence of this character is evident in the similarly banal exteriors affected by Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, and, most famously, Norman Bates in the seminal Psycho.
***This article was first published on March 20, 2015.