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Top Ten Film Villains

Jack Palance Shane George Stevens
Jack Palance in Shane.

Philip French in The Guardian:

“From the start, the movies welcomed into their midst the mustachioed villain of Victorian melodrama, leaving subtler antagonists to literary fiction and the so-called legitimate theatre. ‘The man you love to hate’ (a term coined by publicists to describe Erich von Stroheim) became a cinematic staple. Some actors have never, or only rarely, played genuine villains.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

“But some never escaped being typecast as bad guys. In most Westerns bland heroes have helped the colourful villains occupy the dramatic high ground: every heavy, for instance, in Randolph Scott pictures appeared positively baroque when confronted by Randy’s Easter Island features. Arguably the cinema’s finest line-up of villains is to be found in The Usual Suspects[.] Stig Jarrel is unforgettable as the sadistic schoolmaster in Alf Sjoberg’s Frenzy (1944), the first film scripted by Ingmar Bergman, as is Jules Berry as the equally sadistic music-hall performer in Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939). The following 10 villains have made a special and indelible impression on movie history.”


Among French’s “following 10 villains” are Jack Palance (for Shane, top photo), Barbara Stanwyck (for her murderous-adulterous wife in Double Indemnity, right, with Fred MacMurray), Richard Widmark (for Kiss of Death – French fails to mention the film’s name), Max Schreck (for Nosferatu), and Orson Welles (for The Stranger, The Third Man, and Touch of Evil).

A few missing Great Evildoers – those who made this film watcher ardently root for Evil to triumph over Good:

George Macready (sort of in love with both Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda), Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor (both act rings around a highly ineffectual Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon), Jules Berry (the devil in Les Visiteurs du soir), Laurence Olivier (a nasty Roman aristocrat in Spartacus; a nasty Nazi in Marathon Man), and Daniel Day-Lewis (a rabid xenophobe in Gangs of New York).

Also: James Cagney (as psycho gangsters in The Public Enemy and White Heat), Judith Anderson (as the governess obsessed with her dead mistress in Rebecca), Claude Rains (a cunning murderer in The Unsuspected), Gene Tierney (suffering from Mad Love Disease in Leave Her to Heaven, above, with Cornel Wilde), and Donald Crisp (an abusive father in Broken Blossoms).

And more: Tuesday Weld (an amoral rebel-murderess in Pretty Poison), Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek (as amoral murderers in Badlands), Ramon Novarro (a conniving henchman in The Prisoner of Zenda, 1922), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (as the same conniving henchman in The Prisoner of Zenda, 1937), Angela Lansbury (an incestuous, power-hungry mother in The Manchurian Candidate), and Nita Naldi (an exotic seductress in The Ten Commandments).

And still more: Margaret Wycherly (a murderous old hag with much-too-strong motherly instincts in White Heat), Al Pacino (a mafioso in The Godfather I, II, III), Bette Davis (as cold, calculating murderesses in The Letter and The Little Foxes [right], and a total nut case in Beyond the Forest), Jack Nicholson (a foaming-at-the-mouth military man in A Few Good Men), Ruth Gordon (a devil worshiper in Rosemary’s Baby), and Eleanor Parker (as The Other Woman in The Sound of Music; ok, Parker didn’t actually kill anyone in that film, but you know what she’d like to do with those singing brats – and, really, who in his/her right mind wouldn’t?).

And, last but definitely not least, Edward G. Robinson for his ruthless gangsters in Little Caesar, Key Largo, and many of his other WB films.

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1 comment

Zino -

Jack Palance? – Well, maybe, but: not for his hired gunman in ‘Shane’.

His debut in ‘Panic in the Streets’, directed 1950 by Elia Kazan, is stronger & more sinister than in ‘Shane’ (in my eyes a heavily overrated Western, by the way.)
I recommend Palance also in the classic Italo Western ‘Il Mercenario’ (1968) from Sergio Corbucci.

So here are my top-ten-bad guys:

1.) Klaus Kinski (‘Der Rote Rausch’, ‘Aguirre’, ‘Il Grande Silenzio’, ‘For a few Dollars More’, ‘Prega il morto e ammazza il vivo’; ‘Jack The Ripper’)

2.) Robert Mitchum (‘Cpe Fear’, ‘Night of the Hunter’)

3.) Neville Brand (D.O.A. , 1950)

4.) Richard Widmark (‘Kiss of Death’, ‘The Law and Jake Wade’)

5,) Vincent Price(‘The Haunted Palace’, ‘Masque of the Red Death’; ‘Dragonwxck’; ‘Dr. Phibes’; ‘Theatre of Blood’

6.) Bela Lugosi (White Zombie’, ‘Dark Eyes of London’, ‘The Raven’, ‘Dracula’; ‘Son of Frankenstein’; Island of Lost Souls)

7.) Boris Karloff (The Body Snatcher; The Old Darl House; The Black Cat; Tower of London’, ‘Isle of the Dead’; ‘Invisible Ray’; ‘Bedlam’

8.) Gerd Froebe (Es geschah am hellichten Tag’; Goldfinger)

9.) Lon Chaney (Phantom of the Opera)

10.) Peter Cushing (playing the scientist Dr. Frankenstein in the movies from the Hammer Studio in the late fifties/early sixties; plus ‘Captain Clegg’ (1962)


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