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 50 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.
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 the slideshow to see which of your favorite—or most reviled—supervillains made the list.
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#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.
#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.
#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.
#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).
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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!”
#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.”2018 All rights reserved.