Thursday, April 16, 2015

Best Movie Villains Top 50 All Time

AFI 50 Greatest Film Villains
How would your list compare?

Characteristics of a Villain:
Al Pacino Signed Godfather
w/ Marlon Brando

Do you think of Michael Corleone
#11 as a villain?
  • Wickedness of mind
  • Selfishness of character
  • Will to power sometimes masked by beauty and nobility
  • May rage unmasked
  • Can be horribly evil
  • May be grandiosely funny
  • Most are ultimately tragic
The American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains List, their top 50 movie heroes and 50 top movie villains movie list. Above is the definition of a villain used in creating their list. 

The list, as all of their lists is "meant to spark a national discussion of America's film history among movie lovers across the nation." Here I'll talk a little about the list of Villains and villains in general.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs #1
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho #2
Other Criteria considered by jurors while making their selections:

Feature-Length Fiction Film
narrative format, typically more than 60 minutes in length 

American Film:
English language with significant creative and/or financial production elements from the United States

Cultural Impact:
Characters who have a made a mark on American society in
matters of style and substance.

Characters who elicit strong reactions across time, enriching America's film heritage while continuing to inspire contemporary artists and audiences.

In The Godfather, Vito Corleone,
played by both Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, sported a black fedora hat. The young Vito Corleone 'graduated' from a cloth cap to the fedora once he gained money and power.

Men's Wool Felt Snap Brim Fedora (left)
This same company offers a grey Homburg hat
similar to the one worn by Michael Corleone.

Edward G. Robinson wore a Homburg in Little Caesar back in 1933.

The Corleone style, that of Bonnie and Clyde and others made an impact on society.

The voting jury is described on other famous AFI lists as "Leaders from the creative community, including film artists, critics and historians." 

There were 400 nominated screen characters, 200 villains and 200 heroes from which the 50 of each on the final lists were chosen. 

Vague Spoiler, What happens in the end:
At least 20 or 25 of the villains on this list are dead or otherwise destroyed by the end of their respective movies. They may be shot, crushed, burned, stabbed, dismantled or fall apart. They may freeze to death, be blown up or melt when a bucket of water is thrown upon them. Maybe they fall into a vat of molasses. The audience wants to see villains get what's coming to them.

Add to that an assortment who are arrested or jailed, replaced or left all alone. Some of the villains get sequels. Some, such as Darth Vader and Michael Corleone are on the list specifically noted in sequels.

1 Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs 1991 Anthony Hopkins
2 Norman Bates, Psycho 1960 Anthony Perkins
3 Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back 1980 David Prowse/James Earl Jones
4 The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz 1939 Margaret Hamilton
5 Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 1975 Louise Fletcher
6 Mr. Potter, It's a Wonderful Life 1947 Lionel Barrymore
7 Alexandra Alex Forrest, Fatal Attraction 1987 Glenn Close
8 Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity 1944 Barbara Stanwyck
9 Regan MacNeil, The Exorcist 1973 Linda Blair
10 The Queen, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937/38 Lucille La Verne (voice)

Who are the Villains:
Parents, children, preachers, doctors and nurses
An actual animal and a Vampire who turns into a bat
An alien, martians
Machines, etc programmed, created by humans
Megalomaniacs, psychopaths, sociopaths

Those who went after power, love, money and fame
One possessed by the devil

At least one villain who is never shown on screen
Those who would claim to be just following orders
Those who are just plain evil

Finally, the list includes all of us. The #20 villain is Man from the 1949 animated film Bambi.

More for discussion
The Shark from Jaws #18; Nature v. Intent
HAL 9000 from 2000: A Space Odyssey #13; programmed by humans originally

Numbers 11-20 have some of what I've found to be the most controversial or conversational villains on the list. Michael Corleone, 2001: A Space Odyssey computer character HAL 9000, The Shark from Jaws and Man from Bambi.

11 Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part II 1974 Al Pacino
12 Alex De Large, A Clockwork Orange 1971 Malcolm McDowell
13 HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968 Douglas Rain (voice)
14 The Alien, Alien 1979 Bolaji Badejo
15 Amon Goeth, Schindler's List 1993 Ralph Fiennes
16 Noah Cross, Chinatown 1974 John Huston
17 Annie Wilkes, Misery 1990 Kathy Bates
18 The Shark, Jaws 1975   
19 Captain Bligh, Mutiny On The Bounty 1935/1962
Charles Laughton/Trevor Howard
20 Man Bambi 1942    

When Bambi came out in 1942, the film was praised for its content and its look. Here's how one review mentioned its villain.

"More, there's a full-dyed villain: Man. Strictly speaking, man doesn't appear on screen. He's characterized by a short, ugly, realistic device; the sound of his guns."
-- Modern Screen Magazine October 1942

The list was published in 2003. That year a three-hour TV special AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earned both a hero and villain honor for his portrayal of the same character, The Terminator.

* 14 of the 50 are female/villainesses. One more is the female half of a villainous team. Of the Top Ten Villains on the list, six of them are female villainesses.

Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde #32
and Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest #41
* Biographical Characters:
Four, five if you count them individually

Amon Goeth  1993 Schindler's List #15
Captain Bligh 1935/1962 Mutiny on the Bounty  #19
Clyde Barrow & Bonnie Parker 1967  Bonnie and Clyde  #32
Joan Crawford 1981 Mommie Dearest #41

All are fictionalized to some extent. This doesn't count others based on real people, real stories. 

Leonard Maltin On Edward G. Robinson In Little Caesar #38, American Film Institute

* Actors appearing on the list more than once:
Actress Faye Dunaway plays both Bonnie Parker and Joan Crawford. She is one of the handful of actors who appears on villain list twice. Others are Robert De Niro, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Glenn Close and Robert Mitchum.

While Lansbury's character in The Manchurian Candidate is often referred to as Mrs. Iselin, her first name is Eleanor. The first name of one villainess, Mrs. Danvers from the film Rebecca, is never divulged.

Only two characters from Alfred Hitchcock films appear, Norman Bates (Psycho) and Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca).

21 Mrs. John Iselin, The Manchurian Candidate 1962 Angela Lansbury
22 Terminator, The Terminator 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger
23 Eve Harrington, All About Eve 1950 Anne Baxter
24 Gordon Gekko, Wall Street 1987 Michael Douglas
25 Jack Torrance, The Shining 1980 Jack Nicholson
26 Cody Jarrett, White Heat 1949 James Cagney
27 Martians, The War of the Worlds 1953   
28 Max Cady, Cape Fear 1962/1991 Robert Mitchum / Robert De Niro
29 Reverend Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter 1955 Robert Mitchum
30 Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver 1976 Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver #30 and Cape Fear #28
* Roles played by more than one actor:
Some villains were portrayed by more than one actor in films of different years. The list is unclear about which, if either, they mean. Other times, they're specific. So #19 Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, may be the 1935 film with Charles Laughton in the role or the 1962 version with Trevor Howard. There are differences apparently in which film is more true to the reality of the character his story.

101 Dalmatians, Cruella De Ville #39. There is a 1996 live action film with Glenn Close in the role, but also a 1961 animated version with Betty Lou Gerson voicing the character. With Cape Fear #28, it may be Robert De Niro's role or Max Cady in the 1991 film or Robert Mitchum in the 1962 movie. In the case of The Joker #45 Batman the first actor to be in the first film is Cesar Romero in the 1966 Batman movie.

Anne Baxter talks about the character of Eve Harrington #23 in All About Eve.
Reportedly producer Darryl Zanuck wanted to hire Jeanne Crain for the role of Eve Harrington, but director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz said that Anne Baxter possessed the 'bitch virtuosity' required for the part. 

Along these same lines, Villain #3 is Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. James Earl Jones provides the voice and David Prowse is the physical incarnation of the character we see on screen. 

However, with movies such as Dracula, Scarface and Bonnie and Clyde, it's clear which actors, which films they had in mind. 

For Michael Corleone #11, The Godfather Part 2 is specified in The Godfather Trilogy. This is the film where we see the his rise to power but also we see the character as a baby and a young boy. 

31 Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca 1940 Judith Anderson
32 Clyde Barrow & Bonnie Parker, Bonnie and Clyde 1967 Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway
33 Count Dracula, Dracula 1931 Bela Lugosi
34 Dr. Szell, Marathon Man 1976 Laurence Olivier
35 J.J. Hunsecker, Sweet Smell of Success 1957 Burt Lancaster
36 Frank Booth, Blue Velvet 1986 Dennis Hopper
37 Harry Lime, The Third Man 1949 Orson Welles
38 Caesar Enrico Bandello, Little Caesar 1931 Edward G. Robinson
39 Cruella De Vil, One Hundred and One Dalmatians 1961/1996 Betty Lou Gerson/Glenn Close
40 Freddy Krueger, A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984 Robert Englund 

* Won Academy Awards for their portrayals of the characters:
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes 1990 Misery #17
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest #5 

Others were nominated. 

Louise Fletcher and Kathy Bates won Academy Awards for Best Actress
each playing villainous nurses

The Godfather, Marlon Brando, talks to his son Michael Corleone, Al Pacino #11. "I never wanted this for you."

* Most common ideology represented is Nazism
Amon Goeth 1993 Schindler's List #15 Ralph Fiennes
Dr. Szell  1976 Marathon Man
#34 Laurence Olivier
Hans Gruber 1988 1976 Die Hard #46 Alan Rickman
Auric Goldfinger 1964 Goldfinger #49 Gert Fröbe

This can be carried further in discussion. While I've not seen any direct connection in the name, Freddy Kreuger in A Nightmare on Elm Street has a name similar to WWII Nazi official Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger. 

There are three specifically Italian characters and Lugosi set a standard for a vampire's speech pattern (his Hungarian accent) that we'd hear again. Lugosi wasn't comfortable with the English language at the time and was said to have been reading his lines phonetically.

Glenn Close talks about her character in Fatal Attraction #7, AFI video

* Which type of villain is more frightening? 
101 Dalmatians Cruella Shirt

One immediately physically identifiable as a villain, one you recognize from a film you probably saw in your childhood?

Or a villain who's not only attractive but looks like someone we could meet today? A person and a situation that we could encounter in our own lives?

As a matter of fact, Margaret Hamilton plays two roles in The Wizard of Oz, a character who frightens Dorothy in real life and then the Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz.

The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz
Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction
A one-night stand turned into
a very big mistake for Michael Douglas' character.
Earliest films chosen were from 1931. Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson as gangster Caesar Enrico Bandello and The Public Enemy, James Cagney's performance as bootlegger Tom Powers and Bela Lugosi as Dracula. The most recent film included is from 2001. Training Day, featuring Denzel Washington's corrupt cop, Alonzo Harris. 

* Genres of films
There doesn't seem to be an overriding number of any one genre of films represented. No larger number of horror, science fiction, thriller, animated, gangster, etc. movies on the list. This may be because of the way movies are being more narrowly defined these days.

41 Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest 1981 Faye Dunaway
42 Tom Powers, The Public Enemy 1931 James Cagney
43 Regina Giddens, The Little Foxes 1941 Bette Davis
44 Baby Jane Hudson, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962 Bette Davis
45 The Joker, Batman 1966 Cesar Romero
46 Hans Gruber, Die Hard 1988 Alan Rickman
47 Tony Camonte, Scarface 1932 Paul Muni
48 Roger Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects 1995 Kevin Spacey
49 Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger 1964 Gert Fröbe
50 Alonzo Harris, Training Day 2001 Denzel Washington

* Their Dirty Deeds and Physical Appearance
While greed and power are may be what drives many of these villains, some manage to get through a movie without blood on their hands. How are people changed by the introduction of things like money, passion, fame, drugs, childhood and psychological issues? 

Villains may be charming and attractive or they may be hideous. They could be given a feature innocuous as eyeglasses or for some reason a prosthetic hand. They may have a scar meant to be frightening or a malady meant to be somehow comical. Further example of their being 'foreign.' Freddy Kreuger #40 and The Joker #45 share the comic book trope of being disfigured from accidents and moving on to evil deeds. 

Lionel Barrymore, the actor was actually in a wheelchair at the time he played Mr. Potter. The chair was not a trait created for the character. 

Along with his psychological issues, Cagney's character Cody Jarrett in White Heat #26 suffers from debilitating headaches.  

Are people rewarded for bad behavior, glamorized? How many costumes are there devoted to exciting bad guys and gals vs the good guys?

Gordon Gekko-Michael Douglas images
AFI's 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time list includes quotes from some of the villains on the list. The quote by #24, Gordon Gekko seems especially appropriate. 
If you're interested, the movie quotes list only includes talking/sound films and it does not include song lyrics. It begins with films of 1929.
Other quotes chosen:
1 "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." Rhett Butler (not on villains list :) )
2 "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." The Godfather
10 "You talking to me?" Travis Bickle
37 "I'll be back." The Terminator
56 "A boy's best friend is his mother." Norman Bates
58 "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." Michael Corleone
73 "Mother of mercy is this the end of Rico?" Little Caesar
99 "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!" The Wicked Witch of the West

This article is part of The Great Villain Blogathon of 2015
Your hosts are Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin and Kristina of Speakeasy, and The Great Villain Blogathon happens APRIL 13 – 17, 2015.

Related Pages of Interest:

Real vs Make-Believe: Margaret Hamilton meets Mr. Rogers; Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz; Margaret Hamilton vs The Wicked Witch of the West 

Mrs. Danvers interview Rebecca novel Hitchcock film: Her side of the story
A man's diabolical housekeeper accused of trying to kill his new wife!
Mrs. Danvers gives her side of the story: An Exclusive Interview

From The Great Villain Blogathon of 2014

Find out more about The American Film Institute, AFI

Vamps Vampires Villains and Flappers Female Vampires 1910s-1920s, Villains?  

Join Amazon Prime (Free Month; One Year Membership) Streaming Movies & TV Shipping Discounts and more - Watch Over 40,000 Movies, HBO shows & specials, Wide selection of new/old movies, foreign films and documentaries compared to other streaming video sites and the yearly price is about the same.

Many of the films can be streamed over Amazon Prime and most of the films are  in DVD sets.  

Character/Actor Images:

The Silence Of The Lambs Anthony Hopkins Poster
Anthony Perkins in Psycho II 24x36 Poster
Louise Fletcher One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest Photo
Glenn Close Photos She was in Fatal Attraction and the live action version of 101 Dalmatians

Robert De Niro Photos and Posters De Niro was in Cape Fear and Taxi Driver. He was also in The Godfather, Part 2 for which Al Pacino made the list in his portrayal of Michael Corleone.

Annie Wilkes - Misery - Kathy Bates

Faye Dunaway Autographed Bonnie & Clyde 8x10 Photo
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest Original Vintage Postcard

Wicked Witch of the West

Please note: Some images may not be of actors' as characters on list and may not be from films discussed.


  1. This is an impressive list. It's not only the villains on the list, it's the amount of thought and organization that went into it. (For what it's worth, I was pleased to see J.J. Hunsecker on the list at #35, that snake.)

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this comprehensive list!

    1. Thanks for the comment. It must have been hard to narrow it down to 50! I was surprised to see that the shark from Jaws was there. Lassie is on the 50 Greatest Heroes list but being a pet lover, I can go with that more easily. :)

  2. Ooh, this is an awesome breakdown! I love the AFI lists and this takes it to a whole new level :) Really puts it all in an interesting context when you look at the similarities, differences, and repeats that occur!

    1. Thank you for your comment. There are so many things you can compare and contrast, it was a fun one to write. They say it's more challenging to play the 'good' character, or the 'regular guy.'

  3. I loved getting your analysis of the decisions. A fascinating list. I agree that #35 belongs. I was also very happy to see Davis's character from The Little Foxes--what a chilling portrayal that was. I usually find it creepier if they seem benign/at least normal at first rather than theatrical, which is why Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (Hopkins) never scared me as much as the one in Manhunter (Cox).

    1. Thanks, the variety is really interesting. And I know what you mean - there's at least one early silent film with Menjou where he is the devil in disguise. We see that often, the beautiful man or woman who turns out to be deadly.

  4. An excellent and interesting look at the range of legacy villains.

    My personal top 3 villains didn't make the list at all. Along those lines, I find it interesting that (unless I missed it) none of the villains are from westerns, a genre rife with villainy.

    For "101 Dalmatians" and "Cape Fear", I find the original portrayers the superior villains.

    1. You're right. Some of the westerns have characters, like the villains in the old serials of the 1910s -- who tied the ladies to the railroad tracks -- who'd seem to be just perfect for this list.

  5. Loved reading this breakdown! So fascinating to see the types of people, motives and movie genres that make up the greatest. Appreciate your work on this one and great to have you contribute it to this event, thanks!

    1. Thank you! The Great Villain blogathon can introduce people to movies they've never heard of, never seen before. Just like real life, it's sometimes hard to say who is a villain cut and dried when you know their stories.

  6. Impressive overarching post containing a LOT of villainary. Interesting that there's only two Hitch villains mentioned, although the villain is such a recurring theme in his films.

    1. Yes, and one of the two is a woman. I couldn't believe that six of the top ten were female villains. Still only 14, if I remember right, were women. Very diverse.

  7. That was a very interesting analysis of the AFI top list! Thanks!


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