Good versus evil, a tale as old as time itself. Cinematic villains come in all shapes, sizes, ideologies, and levels of craziness. Some are based on real life people; some are complete manifestations of our own fears or desires. Some, to our own dissatisfaction, make sense of what their dastardly deeds may be to a point where we think, “Wow, they’re right.” It takes a talented actor to pull off a truly memorable villain, one that etches their spot in cinematic history and the cultural lexicon forever.
We specifically won’t be addressing monsters and aliens here; there are countless great horror movie villains that scare the hell out of us, but instead of Freddy Krueger and Xenomorphs, we are more interested here in the emotional, intellectual, and visceral performances from humans and the anger, frustration, sadness, and disturbance they evoke within us. That being said, these are the 30 greatest villains in cinematic history, ranked.
30 Gangs of New York
Based on William Poole, the leader of the Washington Street Gang of New York City, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York is an iconic piece of movie history. Known as someone who commits 110% to every role he plays, the great actor is lost yet again in the role of The Butcher, making it one of Day-Lewis’ best movies.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting
Bill is a ruthless and commanding leader of his gang, striking fear into every one he comes across. Bill is a villain that believes in his cause and his deeds so much that he is willing to, and does, die for them. He’s a tad insane, a bit of a revolutionary ideologue, and a deadly person to know.
29 Mission: Impossible 3
Franchises like Mission: Impossible are filled with villains; in fact, one of the main ways to distinguish entries in some film series like James Bond and Zatoichi is essentially by their villains. Usually over-the-top and vaguely European, the ‘big bad’ of different action franchise entries can be fun or forgettable, but rarely brilliant performances. Leave it to the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman to change the game, turning what could’ve been a tacky, one-bit character into one of the most unsettling villains of all time, Owen Davian, in Mission: Impossible III.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian
Arguably the most underrated installment in the entire Mission: Impossible franchise, J.J. Abrams’ film is a surprisingly gritty and emotional entry for the usually entertainingly fluffy Tom Cruise spectacles. Owen Davian is an arms dealer who develops a personal vendetta against Ethan Hunt after their paths cross in a search for a biological weapon nicknamed the “Rabbit’s Foot.”
Hoffman was a great villain in Punch-Drunk Love but just didn’t have enough screentime to warrant inclusion. What the actor does here, however, is incredible, turning every glance and each word into a threat. His heavy frame, nasal voice, emotionless indifference, and sudden bursts of rage are provocative and intimidating. Don’t believe us? Just check out the clip below.
28 Django Unchained
Director Quentin Tarantino has helped produce some of the best on-screen villains of all time. Two of them are in 2012’s Django Unchained — Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Stephen Warren, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Candie is the owner of Candyland Plantation, where he collects slaves for brutal fights to the death against other slaves. He meets our titular hero, Django, and his partner, Dr. King Schultz, in one of these fights, and the two protagonists launch a plan to charm Candie into selling them one of his slaves — Django’s wife.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen Warren
What makes Candie such an effective villain is his own use of charm on the outside while internally harboring such vile hatred toward the Black men and women he inflicts pain upon. Leonardo DiCaprio, a typically beloved actor in his films, takes Candie to new heights in not just one of his personal best performances, but his absolute most monstrous. Jackson, for his part, is disturbing as Candie’s house slave, a man who values the small bit of power and contentment he has over the dignity and lives of other human beings.
27 Léon the Professional
Arguably Luc Besson’s best film, Léon the Professional features the debut performance of Natalie Portman as a young girl whose family is murdered by corrupt DEA agents and their boss, the deliriously unhinged Norman Stansfield. The young girl is taken in by her neighbor, an old hitman for the mob, and the pair develop an unlikely bond as the girl seeks vengeance.
Gary Oldman as Norman Stansfield
Gary Oldman is incredible as the vicious Stansfield, a sweaty but sharply dressed drug user who relishes any opportunity to do bad. He’s a loquacious, trigger-happy lunatic with a great deal of power, but he’s met his match with the stoic and skilled Léon, played with soulful tenderness by Jean Reno.
Naked is Mike Leigh’s painfully dark, misanthropic, and tragic character study of an antisocial but brilliant man who seems trapped as his worst self. The film opens with this man, Johnny (played by David Thewlis in one of the best performances of all time), assaulting a woman in an alley and being chased out of town, and yet he’s not even the main villain of the film. That would be Sebastian Hawk, who also goes by Jeremy G. Smart, a rich sadist whose path crosses with Johnny after he hides out with an old girlfriend.
Greg Cruttwell as Jeremy G. Smart / Sebastian Hawk
Naked is a haunting study of misogyny, sexual violence, and the fractures in Thatcher-era society, where even the protagonist is awful. But there is a glimmer of hope in Johnny, something possibly redeemable. That’s completely absent in the monstrous character of Sebastian Hawk, who represents the evil at the very top of the social ladder, and how that cruelty bears down on the resentful masses at the bottom. With his upturned nose and smug demeanor, Greg Cuttwell is absolutely perfect at attracting your hatred.
25 A Fish Called Wanda
While comedic villains might not have the same intensity and evil as dramatic ones, they can sometimes be so deliciously fun and over-the-top that they stand with the best. Kevin Kline’s Oscar-winning performance in the madcap crime comedy A Fish Called Wanda makes for one of the funniest villains, hearkening back to moustache-twirling cartoon bad guys in his silly wickedness.
Kevin Kline as Otto West
Kline plays Otto West, part of a gang of diamond thieves who double-cross each other after a successful heist. Otto is a horny sociopath who is sleeping with Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) but pretending to be her brother in order to trick their associates, played wonderfully by John Cleese and Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. Otto is a supreme sleazebag, a bullying American who deeply hates his British counterparts, and is hilariously memorable as such.
24 Something Wild
Jonathan Demme’s underrated masterpiece, Something Wild is a terrifically entertaining film filled with wonderful performances. Jeff Daniels stars as a yuppie who yearns for a little danger in his life, and ultimately hooks up with a punk con artist played perfectly by Melanie Griffith. They end up on a road trip to the woman’s high school reunion, where he pretends to be her husband, a ruse which ends up endangering them both when the woman’s violent ex shows up at the reunion, fresh from prison.
Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair
The late great Ray Liotta delivers a stunning performance, the kind that actually shifts the entire tone of a film. Something Wild drops its rom-com vibe after Liotta’s character, Ray Sinclair, is introduced, becoming a tense thriller. The actor is a master of intimidation here, simmering throughout the film, putting audiences on edge as they anticipate his explosive violence. This all leads to an incredible ending with one of Liotta’s most physical performances.
23 The Big Heat
The Big Heat
- Release Date
- October 14, 1953
- Fritz Lang
- Glenn Ford , Gloria Grahame , Lee Marvin
- 90 min
Fritz Lang’s film noir classicThe Big Heat is a surprisingly dark and upsetting film for 1953 Hollywood, mostly thanks to Lee Marvin’s menacing performance as the criminal villain, Vince Stone. The film follows newly widowed detective Dave Bannon (a wrathful Glenn Ford) who goes to extreme lengths to bring a mob boss to justice. It’s a lonesome quest, as the mob has garnered fear and loyalty from seemingly everyone but Bannon.
Lee Marvin as Vince Stone
Lee Marvin plays the second-in-command for the mob, a nasty and arrogant man named Vince Stone. He was only two years into his film career, and the stand-out performance brought Marvin great acclaim, changing the trajectory of his life. Lanky, slick, and with a gravelly baritone, Stone is a handsome psychopath who acts as if consequences don’t exist, his chauvinism driving his violence (he burns his girlfriend’s face off with acid and puts out his cigar on female flesh). It’s a genuinely scary, sick performance from one of the best actors of his generation.
Akira Kurosawa’s late period masterpiece Ran was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time, and it shows. It’s a gorgeous historical epic with many parallels to Shakespeare’s King Lear (and to Kurosawa’s own life as a filmmaker in Japan). The film follows the plotting and feuds that follow a powerful lord’s abdication, with his three sons vying for the territory. There is great villainy afoot in Ran, a film as much about betrayal and heartbreak as anything else, but the manipulative Lady Kaede is an unforgettably devilish character.
Mieko Harada as Lady Kaede
Lady Kaede feels like an amalgam of Goneril from King Lear and the red-handed Lady Macbeth of Macbeth. Mixing classical Japanese acting with postmodern Shakespearean psychology, Mieko Harada is perfectly contemptible as the manipulative wife of one of the three sons. Her resentment towards the entire family drives her bloody pursuit of power. She uses her body, her wits, and her husband to drive the family apart, and when finally confronted, unleashes all of her bottled-up bitterness in an astounding finale. She’s a tragic, hateful, and awful character we can’t forget.
21 The Vanishing (Spoorloos)
The Vanishing (1988)
- Release Date
- October 27, 1988
- Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu , Gene Bervoets
- 107 min
The Vanishing is a very different kind of mystery, one where the crime occurs at the beginning and the perpetrator reveals himself barely halfway through. Instead of following the traditional beats of most thrillers, The Vanishing is an existential tragedy about the search for truth and meaning, and how people cling to their past and their trauma all the way to the grave. The film follows a man named Rex three years after his girlfriend’s disappearance, when the kidnapper himself, Raymond, introduces himself.
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu as Raymond Lemorne
Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu is perfect as the sophisticated sociopath, Raymond Lemorne, a professor and family man who also recognizes his inner nature and feeds it by committing “the ultimate evil.” There’s an ice-cold logic to Raymond, but also a weird kind of curiosity that’s just short of empathy. He recognizes the desperation of Rex, who will not be satisfied until he learns exactly what happened to his girlfriend. Raymond will show him, but the truth is deadly.
20 Mildred Pierce
Michael Curtiz was a Hollywood legend who knew how to bring classic villains to the screen in his films, be it Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1934), Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), or the Nazi Major Heinrich Strasse in Casablanca (1942). He brought James Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce to life in 1945, and with it, one of the most despicable little brats to ever haunt the silver screen — Veda Pierce.
Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester
Ann Blyth is supremely unlikable as the narcissistic daughter of Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce. The teenage daughter demands more and more from her mother, vampirically draining Mildred of money, time, and love. She puts Mildred through the ringer as a spoiled middle-class girl who is desperate for high social status and will destroy her family in order to achieve it. Blyth’s Oscar-nominated performance taps into viewers’ most visceral emotions, targeting their rage with a realistically brittle performance for the ages. Evan Rachel Wood played Veda in the HBO miniseries of Mildred Pierce, and crafted an almost equally enraging character.
19 Kiss of Death
Kiss of Death
- Release Date
- September 1, 1947
- Henry Hathaway
- Victor Mature , Brian Donlevy , Richard Widmark , Karl Malden , Mildred Dunnock
- 99 min
- Ben Hecht , Charles Lederer
An all-time great performance, Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo is to film noir what Heath Ledger’s The Joker is to superhero films — the best villain in the genre, a demonically giggling lunatic who loves chaos and causing pain. Kiss of Death follows a criminal (played by a forlorn Victor Mature) who becomes an informant and goes undercover with the psychotic murderer, Tommy Udo.
Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo
Tommy Udo is a far cry from the usually stoic, steely cold killers we see in film noir or any movies about hitmen. Like The Joker, he is a giggling madman with an unforgettable laugh, and Widmark’s sunken eyes and hollow expression makes the smile that more terrifying. Udo talks the talk and walks the walk — in one of the most harrowing scenes in noir history, Udo binds an old woman to a wheelchair with electric tape and hurls her down a flight of stairs. He’s a feverish nightmare personified.
18 Training Day
Denzel Washington cleverly warped his famous persona (that of the handsome hero with a charming smile and twinkle in his eyes) and used it to play against type as the enigmatic villain of Training Day. Washington stars as Alonzo Harris, a powerful narcotics officer with the LAPD who is more crooked than a right angle. He’s a charismatic loudmouth and a bullying liar who takes an officer (Ethan Hawke) under his wing. Their 24 hours together will test both of their allegiances and ambitions.
Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris
Alonzo Harris is one of the great crooked cops in film history, but he goes far beyond being the kind of antihero we see in great films like Bad Lieutenant and Dirty Harry. This is a true villain, a man who abuses his power to an extreme degree and who has exerted authority and dominance over large swaths of Los Angeles, using his status in the LAPD to become a veritable crime lord. Washington rightfully won an Oscar for his vicious and unpredictable performance.
17 Rosemary’s Baby
Rosemary’s Baby is one of the great horror films, and yet it doesn’t feature the usual villains and scares. This is more of a psychological thriller about a woman’s subjugation and domestication, made at the height of the women’s liberation movement. As such, the real villains are her husband, her doctor, and her elderly neighbors, all of them trying to control her and use her. Rosemary’s neighbors, the Castevets, are perfectly played by Sidney Blackmer and an Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon.
Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon as Roman and Minnie Castevet
Representing the older generations of Americans who are judging and controlling the younger generation, the Castevets are not your usual Satanists, but there is something downright demonic about how nosy and obnoxious they are. Blackmer is great as the haughty, elitist old Roman, and Gordon is hilariously frustrating as one of the most obnoxious, intrusive, and nasty old villains in film history. She is, quite literally, the neighbor from hell.
16 Fanny and Alexander
Ingmar Bergman’s late epic masterpiece Fanny and Alexander is a magical drama about childhood, God, acting, the afterlife, and art, and is one of the rare perfect films. It also features one of the most hated and miserable characters Bergman ever created. The film follows the Ekdahl family over the course of several years, and when they fall on hard times after the patriarch dies, the mother feels forced to marry a local bishop in order to support her children. The bishop, however, is much more cruel than he initially lets on.
Jan Malmsjö as Bishop Edvard Vergérus
Intensely stern and unforgiving, the arrogant Bishop Edvard Vergérus is the Platonic ideal of a terrible stepfather. He demands his family behave according to his precise expectations, and viciously punishes them when they do not. He beats them and tries to extinguish their spirits, locking them away in the evil fantasy castle where they reside. Jan Malmsjö plays Edvard with exacting precision, like a militant man of God who utterly hates people. He’s an egotistical tyrant, and his screentime is almost torturous; you truly hate this man, but he also seems plucked from reality, the kind of conservative, hard patriarch that painfully governs many families around the world.
15 Cape Fear
- Release Date
- November 15, 1991
- 128 min
Cape Fear features a classic villain that was brought to life wonderfully by two different actors, Robert Mitchum in J. Lee Thompson’s original and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s remake. Max Cady is a true predator, a Southerner with dark desires and hate in his heart. The film follows Cady as he is released from prison and proceeds to terrorize the family of a lawyer who he blames for his conviction.
Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro as Max Cady
Both Mitchum and De Niro bring a mixture of Southern charm and greasy sleaze to their portrayals of Max Cady, but De Niro and his back full of tattoos feels creepier, which works, since Scorsese’s version is almost a horror movie. Watching Robert De Niro smoke and laugh in a movie theater, and hearing how he injects his voice with dirty lust (for sex and violence), is memorably disturbing. But Mitchum’s portrayal is more courageous, turning his polished image into something crass, menacing, and disgusting. He never worries about being sympathetic, sparring with ultimate nice guy Gregory Peck and manifesting the absolute worst impulses of masculinity.
14 To Die For
To Die For
- Release Date
- October 6, 1995
- 106 min
- Buck Henry
Naked ambition can create some of the most complicated and entertaining characters, ones who oscillate between protagonist and antagonist — Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Faye Dunaway in Network. Perhaps more purely villainous than all these wonderful performances, and certainly more underrated, is Nicole Kidman’s masterclass in passive-aggressive suburban manipulation, Suzanne Stone-Maretto in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For.
Nicole Kidman as Suzanne Stone-Maretto
Nicole Kidman has always been a queen of characters who are divinely put together on the surface, but who bubble and boil away on the interior. Perhaps her greatest performance, To Die For follows a fame-obsessed young woman who uses her body and scheming mind to use and abuse a variety of people (including Matt Dillon and an excellent young Joaquin Phoenix). The ultimate opportunist, Suzanne is a true psychopath, able to function and present a coherent lie to people while she ruins their lives with uncaring abandon. Kidman is able to tap into the manipulative sexuality of the character while also being coldly indifferent to a terrifying degree in a perfect performance.
13 Touch of Evil
Orson Welles was a master of grandiosity, exploding his performances in Citizen Kane, Chimes at Midnight, and The Third Man with a kind of Shakespearean grandness that’s distinctly his own. It makes his villainous performances more regal and entertaining, something he uses to fascinating effect in the dark crime thriller, Touch of Evil. Featuring one of the greatest opening shots in cinema and Charlton Heston’s best performance (as a prosecutor on his honeymoon near the Mexico border), Touch of Evil is one of the best films ever made, mostly thanks to director-writer-star Orson Welles.
Orson Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan
Bloated and mumbling, Police Captain Hank Quinlan is a relic from the past doing everything he can to maintain his authority in modern times. The ultimate symbol of corruption, Quinlan is a man who understands power and how to manipulate the system. Welles plays him as an unhappy god, a broken man lording over a broken system, a black hole of nihilism. It’s a grimy, nasty, and very physical performance, one of the saddest and most severe of Welles’ great career.
12 Johnny Guitar
It’s rare that a mere performance will incite rage in viewers, but every now and then, an actor can be so successfully villainous that you want to physically harm them, even if they’re a woman. That’s the case in Nicholas Ray’s Western masterpiece, Johnny Guitar, one of the most stylized and romantic films ever made. Mercedes McCambridge works some pitch black magic here as Emma Small, a truly despicable piece of human trash who makes it her personal quest to destroy the life and livelihood of a casino owner named Vienna (played to camp perfection by Joan Crawford).
Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small
Emma Small organizes the town and creates a posse to threaten and intimidate Vienna, whose old lover has arrived in town and sets out to help her. Emma’s joy at hurting Vienna is almost sexual, with many calling Johnny Guitar one of the great queer films of the 1950s — the battle between Emma and Vienna is coded with lesbian signifiers, and Emma’s intense hatred of Vienna is reflective of her own self-loathing as a closeted lesbian. The result is a psychosexual battle of wits (and then guns), with McCambridge becoming downright demonic in her unbridled performance.
From the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, filmmaker Lars von Trier obsessively remade the same basic film — a kind woman gets brutalized and destroyed by seemingly everyone she knows in a quasi-sacrifical way. While three very different films, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville all explore this basic plot, but Dogville is perhaps the most unsparing in its portrayal of human viciousness, hypocrisy, and exploitation.
Everyone Is a Villain in Dogville
Dogville deconstructs an early American town, quite literally — the film takes place on a sparse soundstage, where chalk outlines describe the set (even indicating where a dog is sitting). You can see inside everyone’s home, because there are no walls, just chalk outlines, forcing us to focus on the characters and performances above all.
We follow Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), a city girl on the run from mobsters, as she hides out in the small town of Dogville. Most townsfolk seem decent at first, but slowly they all begin to expect things from Grace, with the entire town eventually exploiting her into forced labor. The people of Dogville take turns rap*ng Grace, with the evil children celebrating each violation with a ring of church bells. It’s an obscene, pessimistic view of small-town America, one which exposes the pettiness, perversions, and envies that twist about in every human’s dark soul.