Unsung Villains

"Good girls go to heaven," Mae West once said. "Bad girls go everywhere." Sexual connotations aside, West's quote touches on the fascination we all have with the rotten apples. Morgan Freeman said that the villain is often the most interesting part in the film. A noteworthy villain makes for a more compelling story because it's the villain that drives the conflict. The great villains can engage our minds, but even more importantly, touch our emotions. But why are we drawn to them? They operate outside the rules of law and morality that most normal decent people follow. Films give us a safe fictional exposure to these types without us having to know them is real life.

The American Film Institute (AFI) recently released its list of the top 50 villains in film history. Most of their choices few people would dispute - Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, etc. But it wouldn't be an AFI list without a few mind-boggling selections. "Man" from Bambi? "The Martians" from The War of the Worlds? An entire species as a villain? Why stop there? How about "Fire" from The Towering Inferno? Or the iceberg from Titanic? The AFI also muddled the villains list by combining it with the top 50 heroes. Legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Darrow were listed as villains while legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were heroes.

Rather than just criticize, I chose to offer my own list of 50 villains that the AFI overlooked. For consistency's sake, I stuck with the AFI rules. This means limiting myself to "American" films, meaning no Peter Lorre in M (OK maybe I'm stretching "American" with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I had to have Lee Van Cleef on the list). Are robots really villains, given that they don't choose to be evil? I'm not sure, but the AFI says yes by including the original Terminator. So I included the T-1000 from the second film. For the most part, see this list as a supplement to the AFI picks. My top ten selections, however, should have been on the AFI list, which is why I felt compelled to do more than just cite them.

Honorable Mention:
John Kreese (Martin Kove) -- The Karate Kid
Clubber Lang (Mr. T.) -- Rocky III
Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) - Tombstone
Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) - Back to the Future

50. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) -- The Matrix
49. Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) -- Dirty Harry
48. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) -- Memento
47. T-1000 (Robert Patrick) -- Terminator 2: Judgment Day
46. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) - The Apartment
45. Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) -- New Jack City
44. Emperor Palpatine -- Return of the Jedi
43. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- Body Heat
42. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) -- American Psycho
41. Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) -- The Shawshank Redemption
40. Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin) -- The Godfather, Part II
39. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) -- Se7en
38. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) -- Superman
37. Captain, Road Prison 36 (Strother Martin) -- Cool Hand Luke
36. General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) -- The Wild Bunch
35. Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) -- Amadeus
34. Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) -- The Hustler
33. Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman) -- To Die For
32. Frank (Henry Fonda) -- Once Upon a Time in the West
31. Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) -- The Caine Mutiny
30. Longshanks, King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) -- Braveheart
29. Jude O'Hara (Miranda Richardson) -- The Crying Game
28. Sentenza, The Bad (Lee Van Cleef) -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
27. General Zod (Terence Stamp) -- Superman II
26. Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) -- Shane
25. Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) -- L.A. Confidential
24. Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) -- Jackie Brown
23. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) -- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
22. Arjen 'Aryan' Rudd (Joss Ackland) -- Lethal Weapon 2
21. Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) -- The French Connection
20. Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) -- North by Northwest
19. René Belloq (Paul Freeman) -- Raiders of the Lost Ark
18. Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) -- From Russia with Love
17. Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) -- The Sting
16. Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) -- The Silence of the Lambs
15. Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) -- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
14. Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage and John Travolta) -- Face/Off
13. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) -- In the Company of Men
12. Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) -- The Godfather
11. Catherine Tremell (Sharon Stone) -- Basic Instinct

10. Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) -- A Few Good Men
In his first try as an authority figure after so many years in anti-establishment roles, Nicholson transforms into a man who was corrupted by unchallenged power. Of course his courtroom confrontation with Tom Cruise has become cinematic legend. But think about the scene and what makes it work. It's not the writing, which is actually quite pedestrian ("We live in a world that has walls.") It's Nicholson's talent; the anger he invests in his character. Jessep's every word drips with contempt at having to answer questions from someone he considers inferior and unworthy. Jessep stamps himself into our minds, which is why people still say "You can't handle the truth!!!"

9. Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Khan - or, to put it another way - KHAAAAAAAAAN!!!, was already a self-important power hungry dictator when we saw him in "Space Seed" in the original Star Trek TV series. The film adds a new element: revenge. Khan has the charm and style we remember from before but this is increasingly overwhelmed by his thirst for vengeance against Admiral Kirk. Montalban skillfully weaves all of these traits together in establishing the Star Trek villain that became a standard for all others in the series.

8. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) -- Shadow of a Doubt
Many critics have noted that Hitchcock loved to show danger in unlikely places. With Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock shows danger coming from an unlikely person - the beloved Uncle Charlie. He's the family's favorite uncle, and why wouldn't he be? He's played by Joseph Cotton, bringing with him the decency and integrity he imbued in so many of his other characters. Except this time it's a mirage. Hitchcock and Cotten slowly peel away the false warmth on Charlie's surface to show the angry scheming murderer inside. But his family, save one, refuses to even entertain the possibility that something's wrong with him. In some ways Charlie is the most dangerous villain because he hides so well beneath a false persona.

7. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) -- Goodfellas
"Am I funny?" Tommy asks. Yes, he is, in part because Joe Pesci is a naturally funny guy. But he is even more scary. Tommy DeVito is a human firecracker that can explode at any time for any reason. He can instantly turn a comedic situation into a frightening one, creating the tension that makes Goodfellas work so well. Pesci lets you see how the violence comes from Tommy's tremendous insecurity, which makes him no less chilling but much more human.

6. Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) -- Strangers on a Train
Again, Hitchcock shows menace from an unlikely place, this time with a chance encounter on a train. Bruno is charming, elegant, and well-mannered. But he's a child in a man's body. He's a spoiled rich kid who never could understand the word "no." He never learned self-control and never grasped the fact that others might view a situation differently than him. He hates his father, so why wouldn't this man he's talking to? Walker manages to portray the man and the child. When Anthony is slighted, he is not just angry but also sad and hurt. You can almost sympathize with him, although you would never want to meet him.

5. Capt. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) -- Touch of Evil
Hard to believe, but Welles was not that overweight when he played Quinlan and directed Touch of Evil. But he used padding and camera tricks to make Quinlan look like an obese sloth. There may never have been a less vain performance by an actor directing himself. Quinlan is unkempt, unshaven, and sweaty. He moves ploddingly. Welles's normally smooth voice becomes rougher than sandpaper. Quinlan rules over a seedy border town and lashes out when a Mexican detective challenges his authority. As both a director and actor, Welles paints the picture of a once honest cop who has become corrupt and crooked. He embodies a strange mixture of overzealousness and laziness - he gets a hunch about a killer and then plants evidence to prove himself correct. He might be the most compelling villain on the list because he's a man who's lost himself.

4. Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) -- You Only Live Twice
Goldfinger made the AFI list, but Blofeld was the Bond villain who became the archetype for those that followed. He had the look, the bald head with the scar down the side of his face. He had the ever-present cat. But remember that you don't see Blofeld's face until the second half of the film. Before then it's just Pleasence's voice, and what a voice it is - cold and malicious. Pleasence captured the ruthless and brutal quality that made Blofeld so effective. Ignore the others who played Blofeld in later films. Pleasence's Blofeld was the only Bond villain that can truly be called frightening.

3. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) -- Dr. Strangelove
The scary part about General Ripper is that he thinks he's doing the right thing. He's firm in his conviction to stop the contamination of "our precious bodily fluids." Hayden, in that uniform, looks and initially sounds like a stellar military man. He might be a hero were it not for the fact that he's a complete lunatic who's ready to start World War III. As the audience, we, along with the hapless Lt. Mandrake (Peter Sellers), witness Ripper's delusions. Hayden's measured performance lets us first see the General as misguided, and then, as he unravels, totally crazy. The humor comes from him playing the role completely serious. He combines laughs with chills, no small feat.

2. Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) -- True Romance
Yes, I know, he only has one scene. I don't care. When he says "I am the Antichrist" you believe him. Walken's classic delivery makes Quentin Tarantino's words dance off his tongue as Coccotti interrogates the doomed Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper). But it's not just the lines. His stare alone might be enough to put him on this list. Watch Coccotti's reaction as Worley goads him. Walken presents a surface of amusement that does not hide the fury growing inside. You only see him for a precious few moments, but Walken's presence resonates through the rest of the film and after you leave the theater.

1. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) -- Reservoir Dogs
Some villains are cool. Some are crazy. Mr. Blonde is both. He's cool from the get-go but seems to be merely a professional gangster like the rest of the crew. Then Mr. Blonde slowly reveals himself to be a sadistic sociopath. Nothing fazes him. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) lays into him, and he calmly replies "Are you going to bark all day little doggie, or are you going to bite?" Of course that's just the warm-up act. When a bound and gagged police officer says he doesn't know anything. Mr. Blonde tells him that he will torture him anyway. Then we get the dance with the razor blade and the ear slicing to the tune of "Stuck in the Middle with You." But he never loses his cool. That's what's so scary. Madsen shines in his career role. He gives Mr. Blonde that ever so slight smile, just to let you know he enjoys his work. Never has such evil looked so good.

Adam Spector
June 30, 2003

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