Greatest villains of 20th-century cinema

Written by:
September 9, 2019
Shamley Productions

Greatest villains of 20th-century cinema

Great villains come in a variety of forms, from sophisticated con artists to deformed monsters psychopathic serial killers. Whether they choose to torture their prey with excruciating mind games or brutal physical assaults, they all share one key quality: keeping viewers balanced precariously on a knife’s edge of suspense, never sure exactly what horrors will be inflicted on the next victim.

The basics of Screenwriting 101 demand that all stories contain a central conflict or clash between protagonist and antagonist that spurs action. This dictum applies to every genre, whether it be a thriller, comedy, or action film. Now and again, the line between hero and villain is blurred. A morally dubious protagonist is often indistinguishable from an engaging antagonist, both of whom are capable of charming audiences.

The American Film Institute (AFI) in 2003 celebrated its centennial with a list of the top villains in cinematic history; characters so ethically lacking, their diabolical deeds cannot be masked by beauty, wit, or a facade of respectability. Jurors whittled down the original list of 400 contenders to just 50, all of whom must have made their dastardly mark in an English-language, feature-length film. Stacker went in-depth on the greatest villains of last century, compiling the following list along with an overview of each antagonist's significance and cultural context.

Two of the finalists on the AFI list spring from the mind of the master-of-the-macabre, author Stephen King. More than 30 of his novels have been adapted for the silver screen, including “Misery” and “The Shining.” Few of King’s characters, however, are as blood-curdling as Pennywise—the murderous, maniacal clown from the 2017 blockbuster “It,” the sequel to which dropped Sept. 6 and saw actor Bill Skarsgård returning as the shape-shifting monster to terrorize the town of Derry, Maine, once again.

Scroll through see which of your favorite—or most reviled—supervillains made the list.

You may also like: 100 best movies of all time

1 / 49
Eon Productions

#49. Auric Goldfinger

- Actor: Gert Fröbe (voiced by Michael Collins)
- Film: Goldfinger
- Year: 1964

German actor Gert Fröbe played the unctuous “bullionaire” intent on nuking Fort Knox in “Goldfinger,” the third film in the James Bond empire. Fröbe’s English was limited, so his lines were dubbed by Michael Collins in post-production. Goldfinger’s most creative crime? Painting his disloyal assistant gold, thereby blocking her pores and suffocating her.

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PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

#48. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Keyser Söze)

- Actor: Kevin Spacey
- Film: The Usual Suspects
- Year: 1995

Kevin Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a role written specifically for him as the famously unreliable narrator and petty con artist Roger “Verbal” Kint. Arrested in connection with a botched robbery, Kint cuts a deal with investigators, giving up information on elusive mob boss Keyser Söze. In a series of flashbacks, Kint relates atrocities committed by the ruthless Söze, including the murder of his own family and the massacre of a sizable portion of the Hungarian mafia. The film culminates with a jaw-dropping reveal—the entire story has been a fabrication, and Keyser Söze is, in fact, Verbal Kint.

3 / 49
The Caddo Company

#47. Tony Camonte

- Actor: Paul Muni
- Film: Scarface
- Year: 1932

Although Al Pacino’s 1983 portrayal of novelist Armitage Trail’s anti-hero may be better known, actor Paul Muni first brought the emotionally detached thug to life in the 1930s. Inspired by Chicago mobster Al Capone, Muni’s Tony Camonte moves stealthily through the criminal underworld, cavalierly enforcing its violent code.

4 / 49
Twentieth Century Fox

#46. Hans Gruber

- Actor: Alan Rickman
- Film: Die Hard
- Year: 1988

Before there was Severus Snape there was Hans Gruber, the role that made British actor Alan Rickman’s career. Classically trained, Rickman played the debonair Gruber with a cool detachment that set him apart from earlier action film antagonists, letting down his guard only when he falls to his death at the hands of the film’s hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis).

5 / 49
Warner Bros.

#45. The Joker

- Actor: Jack Nicholson
- Film: Batman
- Year: 1989

There’s nothing funny about The Joker in director Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Jack Nicholson’s blood-curdling interpretation of the iconic comic book character is strictly adult fare. Nicholson was Burton’s first choice for the villain disfigured by a steaming vat of toxic waste, and the actor didn’t disappoint. When Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in 2008's “The Dark Knight,” Nicholson warned him about the demands of the all-consuming role, which is believed by some to have hastened Ledger’s premature death.

6 / 49
The Associates & Aldrich Company

#44. Baby Jane Hudson

- Actor: Bette Davis
- Film: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
- Year: 1962

Aging screen sirens and bitter rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford signed on to the 1962 Gothic horror classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” in hopes of resurrecting their flagging careers. Crawford cast herself as the disabled, critically acclaimed actress at the mercy of her deranged sister, former child star Baby Jane Hudson. Davis, her face caked with layers of heavy makeup, steals the show as Jane, cackling wildly as she taunts and tortures the sister she intentionally maimed years earlier in a jealous rage.

7 / 49
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

#43. Regina Giddens

- Actor: Bette Davis
- Film: The Little Foxes
- Year: 1941

In the screen adaptation of playwright Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” ruthless matriarch Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) goads her dying husband while plotting with her equally avaricious brothers to fatten the family coffers at the expense of the local townsfolk. Davis and director William Wyler—with whom she was engaged in a torrid affair—sparred over her interpretation of the character, which departed significantly from the fraught, manipulated housewife originated by Tallulah Bankhead in the original Broadway production.

8 / 49
Warner Bros.

#42. Tom Powers

- Actor: James Cagney
- Film: The Public Enemy
- Year: 1931

Rags-to-riches hoodlum Tom Powers’ penchant for violence is far darker than the infamous scene in which he famously smashes a grapefruit in the face of his nagging girlfriend. Played by the incomparable James Cagney, Powers struggles to balance family life with his position as a ruthless crime boss. “The Public Enemy” was later referenced in the hit HBO drama “The Sopranos,” in a scene where mobster Tony Soprano obsessively views the film.

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Paramount Pictures

#41. Joan Crawford

- Actor: Faye Dunaway
- Film: Mommie Dearest
- Year: 1981

Joan Crawford's eldest daughter Christina waited until after her mother's death to publish her tell-all book, “Mommie Dearest,” in which she accuses the Oscar-winning actress of shocking physical and emotional abuse. Faye Dunaway resurrects Crawford in the silver screen adaptation, instilling fear in her brood just by raising one of her signature arched eyebrows. The film’s most notorious scene depicts Crawford dragging young Christina by the hair, screaming, “No wire hangers!”

10 / 49
New Line Cinema

#40. Freddy Krueger

- Actor: Robert Englund
- Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street
- Year: 1984

Robert Englund’s disturbingly disfigured Freddy Kreuger is the Nightmare on Elm Street in director Wes Craven’s slasher classic. With his molten skin and talon-tipped gloves, Kreuger is the ultimate horror villain: a murderous maniac who stalks kids while they dream, preying on their fears. In 2018, Englund made a guest appearance as the infamous psychopath on the Halloween episode of “The Goldbergs.

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Walt Disney Productions

#39. Cruella de Vil

- Actor: Voice by Betty Lou Gerson
- Film: One Hundred and One Dalmatians
- Year: 1961

Cruella de Vil, donning her distinctive two-tone tresses, slithers onto the screen in the 1961 animated feature  alternatively puffing her signature opera-length holder and tossing off critical witticisms. Ghastly pale and preternaturally thin, Disney’s uber-villainess refuses to rest until she’s amassed 101 Dalmatian puppies—the number needed to create a full-length coat of spotted, black-and-white pelts. Glenn Close brought the iconic villainess to life in 1996, and Emma Stone followed suit in the 2021 prequel “Cruella.”

12 / 49
First National Pictures

#38. Caesar Enrico Bandello

- Actor: Edward G. Robinson
- Film: Little Caesar
- Year: 1931

Living by the mantra “Shoot now and argue afterwards,” Edgar G. Robinson’s dapper-but-deadly Caesar Enrico Bandello rules Chicago’s Northside with an iron fist. Robinson, a Romanian immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island at the tender age of 10, shot to stardom in the unprecedentedly violent film and went on to make a string of successful crime sagas.

13 / 49
London Film Productions

#37. Harry Lime

- Actor: Orson Welles
- Film: The Third Man
- Year: 1949

In director Carol Reed’s 1949 noir classic, Orson Welles plays the morally bankrupt Harry Lime, pursued by an old childhood friend throughout the streets of post-WWII Vienna. Finally cornered, he gives a chilling speech detailing his lucrative black-market trade in diluted antibiotics—a venture which has left many of his young victims with brain damage. “The Third Man” was named the greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute.

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De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

#36. Frank Booth

- Actor: Dennis Hopper
- Film: Blue Velvet
- Year: 1986

Gas-huffing sadist Frank Booth took evil to a whole new level in director David Lynch’s symbolist nightmare, “Blue Velvet.” Obsessed with femme fatale Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), Booth kidnaps her husband and young son for the sole purpose of turning her into his sex slave. Oscillating between split personalities, “Daddy” and “Baby,” Booth repeatedly rapes the songstress. Helium was the original pick for the mysterious substance in Booth’s omnipresent canister; Hopper, a recovering substance abuser, convinced Lynch to change it to nitrous oxide.

15 / 49
Norma Productions

#35. J.J. Hunsecker

- Actor: Burt Lancaster
- Film: Sweet Smell of Success
- Year: 1957

Burt Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a successful Manhattan gossip columnist who meets his match in down-at-heel press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Clifford Odets’ dialogue crackles, as the two men engage in a vicious feud inspired by famed columnist Walter Winchell.

16 / 49
Robert Evans Company

#34. Dr. Szell

- Actor: Laurence Olivier
- Film: Marathon Man
- Year: 1976

Unwitting grad student Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) tangles with Laurence Olivier’s sadistic Nazi dentist, Dr. Christian Szell, in the 1976 thriller “Marathon Man.” Acclaimed by many as the greatest actor of his generation, Olivier initially expressed doubts about playing the monstrous Szell, who was based on real-life “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele.

17 / 49
Universal Pictures

#33. Count Dracula

- Actor: Bela Lugosi
- Film: Dracula
- Year: 1931

Although Dracula wasn’t the first celluloid vampire (that honor goes to Count Orlok of “Nosferatu” fame), he is, arguably, the most memorable. Bela Lugosi’s iconic turn as the bloodthirsty count in the 1931 screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Victorian novel was so convincing, the Hungarian actor found it impossible to shirk the character and remained typecast for most of his life.

18 / 49
Warner Brothers / Seven Arts

#32. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker

- Actor: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway
- Film: Bonnie and Clyde
- Year: 1967

Depression-era lovebirds Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, terrorize the heartland in this groundbreaking biopic directed by Arthur Penn. The film’s romanticized portrayal of the couple was influenced by Parker’s poetry as well as an infamous series of playful photographs taken by the pair and discovered after their deaths ina hail of bullets on a Louisiana highway.

19 / 49
Selznick International Pictures

#31. Mrs. Danvers

- Actor: Judith Anderson
- Film: Rebecca
- Year: 1940

Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock cast accomplished Broadway actress Judith Anderson as the manipulative Mrs. Danvers in the screen adaptation of author Daphne du Maurier’s psychological thriller. Obsessed with the memory of her dead mistress, head housekeeper Danvers makes life miserable for the new lady of the manor, driving her to the brink of suicide. In one scene, Danvers fondles the deceased Rebecca’s lingerie, suggesting a possible romantic interest in the former Mrs. de Winter.

20 / 49
Columbia Pictures

#30. Travis Bickle

- Actor: Robert De Niro
- Film: Taxi Driver
- Year: 1976

Travis Bickle, the antagonist in Martin Scorsese's ‘70s psychological thriller, is one of the most compelling anti-heroes in cinema history, thanks largely to Robert De Niro’s searing portrayal. A troubled Vietnam vet, Bickle is simultaneously empathetic and repugnant as the insomniac taxi driver whose obsessions with a comely campaign senator (Cybill Shepherd) and tween prostitute (Jodie Foster) lead him to commit shocking acts of violence.

21 / 49
Paul Gregory Productions

#29. Reverend Harry Powell

- Actor: Robert Mitchum
- Film: The Night of the Hunter
- Year: 1955

Long before Radio Raheem brandished brass knuckles bearing the words “love” and “hate” in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” the Rev. Harry Powell had the antonyms tattooed on his hands in the 1955 expressionist masterpiece, “The Night of the Hunter.” Robert Mitchum stuns as the religious fanatic and serial killer who charms—and then murders—the widow of a recently executed convict in a brazen attempt to steal $10,000.

22 / 49
Melville Productions

#28. Max Cady

- Actor: Robert Mitchum
- Film: Cape Fear
- Year: 1962

Few characters are more loathsome than serial rapist and pedophile Max Cady, played by Robert Mitchum seven years after his role as the nefarious Reverend Powell. Recently released from prison, Cady turns up in Cape Fear, where he proceeds to terrorize the family of Sam Bowden—the lawyer who prosecuted him years earlier. In addition to poisoning the family dog, Cady sets his sights on Sam’s teenage daughter, Nancy. Mitchum’s arresting performance, which included blatant sexual innuendo, heralded the demise of the Hays Office and a more relaxed attitude toward censorship.

23 / 49
Paramount Pictures

#27. Martians

- Actor: Various
- Film: The War of the Worlds
- Year: 1953

A mid-century modern riff on H. G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds” pits brainy Californians Clayton Forrester and Sylvia Van Buren against an army of space invaders cavalierly evaporating earthlings with their heat rays. The U.S. government retaliates by dropping an atomic bomb, which the Martians easily repel with their superior technology. Ultimately, the extraterrestrials are overcome by an unorthodox weapon: the power of prayer.

24 / 49
Warner Bros.

#26. Cody Jarrett

- Actor: James Cagney
- Film: White Heat
- Year: 1949

Although James Cagney distinguished himself in 1930s Hollywood as the consummate bad boy, he began to avoid gangster roles for fear of being typecast. When the production company he established with his brother proved less than successful, Cagney returned to the lot and resurrected his career as the violent, migraine-plagued mama’s boy Cody Jarrett In “White Heat.”

25 / 49
Warner Bros.

#25. Jack Torrance

- Actor: Jack Nicholson
- Film: The Shining
- Year: 1980

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic horror novel stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, an alcoholic writer moonlighting as the winter caretaker of a spooky hotel nestled in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Isolation takes its toll on Torrance, transforming him into a murderous psychopath with a psychic gift. Nicholson truly made the character his own, ad-libbing the line “Here’s Johnny!” during the infamous axe-wielding scene—one of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movie Quotes.

26 / 49
Twentieth Century Fox

#24. Gordon Gekko

- Actor: Michael Douglas
- Film: Wall Street
- Year: 1987

The epitome of ‘80s excess, Gordon Gekko was based loosely on disgraced financier Ivan Boesky and encapsulated the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street with the immortal line, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Michael Douglas’ polished performance earned him an Oscar for the role.

27 / 49
Twentieth Century Fox

#23. Eve Harrington

- Actor: Anne Baxter
- Film: All About Eve
- Year: 1950

Looks are deceiving in the classic melodrama “All About Eve.” Ann Baxter’s starry-eyed assistant Eve Harrington appears to bend over backwards for her employer, Broadway legend Margo Channing (played by notorious bad girl Bette Davis in an inspired casting twist). Behind the scenes, Eve plots to relieve Channing not only of her husband, but also of her acting career. Confronted with her protégé’s treachery, Davis utters the infamous line, “Fasten your seat belts—it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

28 / 49

#22. Terminator

- Actor: Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Film: The Terminator
- Year: 1984

Arnold Schwarzenegger originated the role of “The Terminator” in the eponymous 1984 film directed by James Cameron and is the only character to appear as both a villain and a hero on the AFI list. In the first film in the series, the time-traveling cyborg assassin turns up in ‘80s L.A. on a mission to destroy college student Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The blockbuster film was followed by a string of sequels, with the most recent installment hitting theaters November 2019.

29 / 49
M.C. Productions

#21. Mrs. Eleanor Iselin

- Actor: Angela Lansbury
- Film: The Manchurian Candidate
- Year: 1962

Angela Lansbury’s Eleanor Iselin gives Catherine de’ Medici a run for her money in this Cold War political thriller. Iselin, a communist spy plotting the takeover of the United States, manipulates her son, unwitting sleeper agent and Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw, to advance her cause. The film hints at the incestuous relationship between mother and son when Iselin plants a lingering kiss on Shaw’s lips—a relationship more explicitly stated in Richard Condon’s novel.

30 / 49
Walt Disney Productions

#20. Man

- Actor: character is offscreen only
- Film: Bambi
- Year: 1942

Audiences were brought to tears when a bullet took down Bambi’s mother, traumatizing children throughout America. The responsible hunter never appears on screen; his presence is communicated solely through ominous music and exhortations from the panicked doe urging her young son to make a run for it.

31 / 49

#19. Captain Bligh

- Actor: Charles Laughton
- Film: Mutiny on the Bounty
- Year: 1935

When the crew of the HMS Bounty rises up against tyrannical captain William Bligh, he unwittingly exacts revenge on the very sailor who attempted to prevent the incident. Charles Laughton, who played Bligh in the 1935 adaptation of the classic novel, garnered an Oscar nomination for his performance despite battling his fear of the ocean and seasickness throughout production.

32 / 49
Zanuck/Brown Productions

#18. The Shark

- Actor: Bruce
- Film: Jaws
- Year: 1975

The bloodthirsty shark nicknamed “Jaws” in the eponymous ’70s summer blockbuster terrorized the idyllic seaside community of Amity Island, striking fear into the hearts of beachgoers everywhere. The animatronic antagonist spawned several sequels and remains a popular horror film trope to this day.

33 / 49
Castle Rock Entertainment

#17. Annie Wilkes

- Actor: Kathy Bates
- Film: Misery
- Year: 1990

Kathy Bates took home an Oscar for her turn as disturbed nurse Annie Wilkes in the film version of Stephen King’s novel “Misery.” When Wilkes discovers her favorite romance author, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), injured in a car wreck, she brings him back to her home to recuperate. Things take a dark turn when Sheldon reveals his plans to kill off Wilkes’ favorite character, Misery Chastain. Bates struggled with the film’s violence and was reduced to tears before shooting the infamous scene in which Wilkes takes a sledgehammer to Sheldon’s ankles, thereby imprisoning him in her home and forcing him to resurrect her beloved heroine.

34 / 49
Paramount Pictures

#16. Noah Cross

- Actor: John Huston
- Film: Chinatown
- Year: 1974

Few antagonists are as morally repugnant—or receive as little screen time—as Noah Cross in director Roman Polanski’s noir film “Chinatown.” Hollywood legend John Huston plays the millionaire property developer as a congenial, almost grandfatherly, figure—a respectable facade masking an incestuous monster intent on monopolizing the limited San Fernando Valley water supply at any cost.

35 / 49
Universal Pictures

#15. Amon Goeth

- Actor: Ralph Fiennes
- Film: Schindler's List
- Year: 1993

British actor Ralph Fiennes shot to stardom for his role as Nazi thug Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Holocaust drama. Fiennes, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, was so convincing as the monster who sent countless Polish Jews to their deaths that an elderly concentration camp survivor shook uncontrollably when she met Fiennes (in full uniform) on set.

36 / 49
Brandywine Productions

#14. The Alien

- Actor: Bolaji Badejo
- Film: Alien
- Year: 1979

Ridley Scott had a tough time finding an actor physically suitable for the role of the eponymous extraterrestrial conjured by H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist who headed up Scott’s special effects team. Scott finally settled on 6-foot-10 Bolaji Badejo after casting agent Peter Ardram discovered the lanky Nigerian in a London pub. Prior to filming, Badejo worked with trainers and studied mime in preparation for the physically taxing role.

37 / 49

#13. HAL 9000

- Actor: Voice of Douglas Rain
- Film: 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Year: 1968

HAL 9000, a sentient, heuristically programmed algorithmic computer, is the star of director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi sensation, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” HAL runs the show on the Discovery One, speaking in eerily pacific tones voiced by Douglas Rain. Faced with the prospect of disconnection after malfunctioning on a mission to Jupiter, HAL retaliates by attempting to kill the ship’s crew. The film is remarkably prescient, anticipating Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

38 / 49
Warner Bros.

#12. Alex DeLarge

- Actor: Malcolm McDowell
- Film: A Clockwork Orange
- Year: 1971

Audiences were shocked by Malcom McDowell’s chilling performance as disaffected, dystopian youth Alex DeLarge in director Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ futuristic sci-fi novel. In a particularly harrowing scene, Alex participates in a brutal attack on a London writer and his wife while simultaneously performing the Gene Kelly classic “Singin’ in the Rain”—an inspired improvisation on McDowell’s part.

39 / 49
Paramount Pictures

#11. Michael Corleone

- Actor: Al Pacino
- Film: The Godfather Part II
- Year: 1974

Al Pacino reprised the role of Michael Corleone in the critically acclaimed 1974 sequel to “The Godfather.” Having relocated the family business to Nevada after the death of his father, the former golden boy of the Corleone clan transforms into a ruthless, power-obsessed mafia Don. Pacino maintains that the performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, was the most demanding of his career.

40 / 49
Walt Disney Productions

#10. The Evil Queen

- Actor: Voice by Lucille La Verne
- Film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- Year: 1937

The Brothers Grimm tapped into the dark side of the female psyche with the publication of their collected fairy tales in 1812, which included “Little Snow White.” More than a century later, Walt Disney brought the story to the big screen, in which Snow White’s stepmother asks the eternal question, “Magic mirror on the wall, who in this land is the fairest one of all?” Mirrors don’t lie, enraging the jealous Queen. When her first attempt to kill Snow White is thwarted by an uncooperative hunter, she takes matters into her own hands, in the form of a poisoned apple.

41 / 49
Warner Bros.

#9. Regan MacNeil (possessed by demon "Pazuzu")

- Actor: Linda Blair (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge)
- Film: The Exorcist
- Year: 1973

The villain in “The Exorcist” isn’t so much pre-teen Regan MacNeil as the devil in possession of her body. Based on a true story, audiences gasped in horror as the angelic protagonist morphed from an obedient schoolgirl into a head-spinning, projectile-vomiting demon. Blair earned a Golden Globe for her performance, but it was veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge who voiced the monster from hell, fuelled by a diet of raw eggs, cigarettes, and alcohol.

42 / 49
Paramount Pictures

#8. Phyllis Dietrichson

- Actor: Barbara Stanwyck
- Film: Double Indemnity
- Year: 1944

Inspired by 1920s murderess Ruth Snyder, “Double Indemnity” stars Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson—a classic Hollywood femme fatale that enlists the help of smitten insurance agent Walter Neff to terminate her husband and thereby collect on his lucrative policy. The character was so lacking in redeeming values, director Billy Wilder had to convince Stanwyck to take the part. In later years, however, the actress revealed that Dietrichson was the plum role of her career.

43 / 49
Paramount Pictures

#7. Alex Forrest

- Actor: Glenn Close
- Film: Fatal Attraction
- Year: 1987

Glenn Close earned an Academy Award nomination for her turn as Alex Forrest, the unhinged “other woman” in the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction,” prompting philandering husbands everywhere to reevaluate their dalliances. When lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) pulls the plug on their steamy affair, Forrest unravels—stalking Gallagher’s family, kidnapping his daughter, and, memorably, boiling a rabbit on the family stove. To this day, Close is critical of the film, notably its failure to address her character’s obvious mental health issues.

44 / 49
Liberty Films (II)

#6. Mr. Potter

- Actor: Lionel Barrymore
- Film: It's a Wonderful Life
- Year: 1946

Lionel Barrymore has the dubious honor of playing the most despised character in one of American’s most beloved films—miserly bank owner Henry F. Potter in the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Potter swindles protagonist George Bailey out of $8,000 on Christmas Eve, driving him to the brink of suicide. Confined to a wheelchair due to a hip injury, Barrymore played the part of Potter as a polio-stricken paraplegic.

45 / 49
Fantasy Films

#5. Nurse Ratched

- Actor: Louise Fletcher
- Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
- Year: 1975

Philosopher Hannah Arendt didn’t have Nurse Ratched in mind when she wrote her 1963 treatise on the banality of evil, but the passive-aggressive manager of author Ken Kesey’s fictional psychiatric ward certainly fits the bill. Ratched rules over her charges with an iron fist, ordering catatonic medications, electroshock treatments, and lobotomies at whim. Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for her role as the sadistic nurse perpetually locked in battle with Jack Nicholson’s anti-hero, empathetic reprobate Randle McMurphy.

46 / 49

#4. The Wicked Witch of the West

- Actor: Margaret Hamilton
- Film: The Wizard of Oz
- Year: 1939

It’s been more than 80 years since the Wicked Witch of the West first struck terror into the hearts of children around the world, and the green-hued sorceress hasn’t lost her touch. In 1975, actress Margaret Hamilton made an appearance on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” hoping to put some of their nightmares to rest. Dressed in a pink dress and pearls, Hamilton informed the kindly, cardigan-sporting host that it was all just make-believe, slipping into her signature costume to illustrate her point.

47 / 49

#3. Darth Vader

- Actor: David Prowse (voiced by James Earl Jones)
- Film: The Empire Strikes Back
- Year: 1980

Audiences first encountered Darth Vader in 1977, with the release of “Star Wars”—the first film in director George Lucas’ futuristic empire. Voiced by James Earl Jones, Darth Vader drops one of the most shocking reveals in cinema history, informing his nemesis Luke Skywalker that the masked tyrant is, in fact, the young Jedi Knight’s father. Darth Vader didn’t always walk on the dark side, however. As young Anakin Skywalker, he’s the protagonist of the series’ prequel trilogy.

48 / 49
Shamley Productions

#2. Norman Bates

- Actor: Anthony Perkins
- Film: Psycho
- Year: 1960

Alfred Hitchcock adapted author Robert Bloch’s psychological thriller for the screen and cast Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, a serial killer with some serious mommy issues. After stabbing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the iconic shower scene, Bates—suffering from multiple personality disorder—impersonates his deceased mother while preserving her corpse in the basement of the family home. Perkins returned to the role in several sequels and was so convincing as the deranged murderer, he was never able to fully distance himself from Bates in the public consciousness.

49 / 49
Strong Heart / Demme Production

#1. Hannibal Lecter

- Actor: Anthony Hopkins
- Film: The Silence of the Lambs
- Year: 1991

Audiences have always nurtured a grim obsession with serial killers, flocking to films such as “Natural Born Killers,” “Summer of Sam,” and “American Psycho,” to name but a few. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the #1 spot on AFI’s list belongs to the brilliantly diabolical Hannibal Lecter—one of the most complicated killers in the history of cinema. First brought to life by author Thomas Harris, Hannibal the Cannibal (played by Brian Cox) made his screen debut in the 1984 film Manhunter.” It was Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance as the deranged doctor in director Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” however, that turned the sophisticated psychopath into a household name.

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