Perfectly woven within the storied tapestry of exceptional American ‘film noir’ (aka Crime Drama/Horror/Thriller) are assumed pretexts for the depravities of the antagonist. Specifically, notions of where it all went wrong, and/or how they got broken, and/or cautionary tales regarding hubris and the dangers of unchecked ambition. Although the driving motivation of each villain is unique, the combination of mental instability, outsized lucidity, and moral bankruptcy are baked into their fevered psychology. As are their best laid plans of intentional ruin. Indeed, the most compelling villains are typically imbued with exceptional levels of bastardized intelligence, for use in treachery. The fact that villains dismiss notions of morality with alarming ease, makes observing the villain and his/her villainy … compelling.
At the convergence of script excellence, directorial mastery, and transcendent acting performance, is where ‘edge of your seat’ entertainment is located.
American Pop has compiled a thoughtfully vetted list of 13 Legendary Villains from modern film history for your preview, review, pleasure, or vehement disagreement. Although, our intended aim to keep the latter to a minimum. Please … Enjoy.
DIE HARD (R)
Artist: ALAN RICKMAN
Director: John McTiernan Film Release: July 12th 1988 / 20th Century Fox
“No, Mr. McLane, I am an exceptional thief…” – Hans Gruber
Well, as a matter of fact based on fictional realities, I’m prepared to submit that Hans Gruber was an ambitious thief. He was also a detestable character carved out of the petrified timber of villainy. He was also a shrewd, albeit ruthless criminal wholly unconstrained by notions of morality. When you throw in his additional character traits (flaws) which include an abject manner of condescension, pointed arrogance, and the grimy sound of his accent, you have the basic active ingredients in irredeemable scoundrel jambalaya. To be sure, Alan Rickman’s performance was fantastic. So convincing in fact that audiences cheered in virtual unison as he was falling from the lofty heights of Nakatomi Plaza … to his death. If an instant feedback loop exists in movie theaters, audience reaction en mass and in unison … is it. By this measure alone Director John McTiernan’s ‘Die Hard’ easily surpasses pedestrian notions. This is due in no small part to exceptional performances delivered by the always engaging cowboy antics of Bruce Willis (John McClane), and Alan Rickman’s nuanced, albeit despicable, expressions of villainy.
Artist: KATHY BATES
Director: Rob Reiner Film Release: November 30th, 1990 / Columbia Pictures
Winner Academy Award: ‘Best Actress‘ / Golden Globe Award ‘Best Actress’
To make the assertion that the Annie Wilkes character, played flawlessly by the wonderfully talented Kathy Bates, is ‘creepy’, would be a pointed understatement of fact. For this deeply disturbed character, ‘creepy’ is a baseline description. Indeed, Annie Wilkes evokes the sort of unsettling feelings of trepidation that surely emerge when in the unsupervised presence of the criminally insane. Perhaps the most extreme examples of villain, are those villains that are also quite insane. There is no telling what a truly insane human or actor portrayal of said insane human, is capable of, and no telling what heinous behavior they might engage in. These fearful notions undoubtedly became imbued in her unwitting prisoner Paul Sheldon, competently played by James Caan. Director Rob Reiner’s ‘Misery’ was brilliantly cast, with Kathy Bates being the most observable ‘home run’. Indeed, Kathy Bates took home both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for ‘Best Actress’ for her remarkable performance.
TRUE ROMANCE (R)
Artist: GARY OLDMAN
Director: Tony Scott Film Release: September 10th 1993 / Warner Bros.
The ‘Drexyl Spivey’ character, stunningly portrayed by Gary Oldman, in Director Tony Scott’s 1993 crime thriller ‘True Romance’ stands as nothing short of a mesmerizing example of film villainy. This character had the added benefit of being written by Quentin Tarrantino. Spivey is widely considered a great villain, however not just for all of the reasons that make sense of the fact he is a degenerate pimp. Equally as remarkable is the fact that Spivey appears in less than a handful of scenes in this film, yet is arguably its most memorable, certainly its most colorful, if not equally as despicable. The cult popularity of the ‘Drexyl Spivey’ character is testament to the transcendent acting talent of Gary Oldman. Indeed, Oldman’s performance elevates what would ordinarily be a tangential character to iconic levels of compelling. Bravo Gary Oldman.
NEW JACK CITY (R)
Artist: WESLEY SNIPES
Director: Mario Van Peebles Film Release: March 8th 1991 / Warner Bros.
“I’m not guilty. You’re the one that’s guilty. The lawmakers, the politicians, the Columbian drug lords, all you who lobby against making drugs legal.” -Nino Brown.
Well, the notions that ‘Nino Brown’ espouses may in fact be true, but doesn’t change the fact that he is a despicable character guilty of murder and murderous intent. Nor does it change the fact that in one scene while under machine gun fire, he picks up a little girl and uses her to shield himself from harm. This behavior in addition to the fact that he forcibly took over an entire New York City project apartment complex, evicting at gun point those tenants who objected, and relegating those too fearful to object, as ‘live in hostages’. Indeed, this is the reality in Director Mario Van Peeble’s 1991 film noir crime epic, ‘New Jack City’. A film that was a commercial success then, has become a cult classic since. Wesley Snipes provides a performance as narcotics (crack) Kingpin Nino Brown, that is fluid with intensity, and bursting its celluloid seams with nefarious impulses of misguided ambition. Nino Brown is a despicable villain to be certain, and it’s difficult to imagine an actor other than Wesley Snipes who could do a better job.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (R)
Performer: LOUISE FLETCHER
Director: Miloš Forman Film Release: November 19th 1975
Winner (5) Academy Awards
If one were in the market for locating examples of condescension and contempt in a film character, then that search would be satisfied by Louise Fletcher’s performance as ‘Nurse Ratched’ in Director Milos Forman’s all-time classic . It’s rare to come across a healthcare worker in life or in film, that elicits the kind of pointed disgust that Nurse Ratched manifests in this film. Indeed her ceaseless power play feud with serial criminal Randie McMurphy, brilliantly played by the great Jack Nicholson, is an emotion provoking brand of compelling. In consideration of Nurse Ratched, that emotion strongly resembles antipathy. This reality is testament to the efficacy of Louise Fletcher’s performance, for which she was honored with the Academy Award for ‘Best Actress‘. Indeed, Jack Nicholson also took home the Academy Award for ‘Best Actor‘, and their combined performances, and others, are among the critical reasons why ‘One Flew of Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ took home the Academy Award for ‘Best Motion Picture’ of 1975.
AMERICAN PSYCHO (R)
Artist: CHRISTIAN BALE
Director: Mary Harron Film Release: April 14th, 2000 / Lionsgate Films
It’s difficult not to be at once horrified and enthralled with Christian Bale’s performance as ‘Patrick Bateman’, the financial services professional by day who in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ fashion transforms into a serial homicidal maniac. Indeed, Director Mary Harron’s horror/black comedy thriller ‘American Psycho’ provides a competent vehicle for Bale to indulge in the maniacal psychopathy of Patrick Bateman. His modus operandi is every bit as dreadful as one might expect of a blood thirsty murderer, however this notion is compounded when juxtaposed with the character’s upwardly mobile outward appearance. It’s an unsettling circumstance that provides one’s imagination little room for comfort.
Artist: KEVIN SPACEY
Director: David Fincher Film Release: September 22nd 1995 / New Line Cinema
‘John Doe’, exquisitely played by Kevin Spacey, is a psychopath serial killer who uses cherry picked portions of the Bible to justify and/or legitimize his murderous behavior, specifically, the ‘7 Deadly Sins’. In Director David Fincher’s film noir classic, ‘Se7en’, the John Doe character has limited screen time, however, the impact and fallout from the litany of his heinous deeds are omnipresent in the film. Ritualistic murders which provide the angst, urgency and determination that motivate Homicide Detectives David Mills and William Somerset, wonderfully played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, respectively. Indeed, serial killers are always terrifying. In ‘Se7en’, John Doe checks every box under terrifying, and his methods are testament to his exceptional madness.
CLOCKWORK ORANGE (R)
Performer: MALCOLM McDOWELL
Director: Stanley Kubrick Film Release: December 19th 1971 / Warner Bros.
If evidence is needed to reinforce the extent of depraved villainy that a late stage teenager can manifest, then ay we present the Alex DeLarge character from Director Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian classic, ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Malcolm McDowell turns in a fabulous performance which was rich with the nuance of Alex’s emotional contradictions, unhinged recklessness, and disturbing propensity for outburst of what he describes as ‘ultra-violence’. Alex DeLarge is a terrifying character.
Kubrick’s film is a dark look into a futuristic dystopian world where youth culture had devolved into roving bands of violent gangs willing and capable of senseless, unspeakable acts cruelty and violence. Alex DeLarge is the archetype of this pointedly egregious post adolescent behavior.
THE SHINING (R)
Artist: JACK NICHOLSON
Director: Stanley Kubrick Film Release: May 23rd, 1980 / Warner Bros.
In the nearly four decades since the theatrical release of Director Stanley Kubrick’s classic ‘The Shining’, film audiences have been both haunted and entertained by the antics and homicidal mania exhibited by ‘Jack Torrance’, a recovering alcoholic who fashions himself a novelist. This character was deftly played by Jack Nicholson, who was able to express Jack Torrance’s incremental descent into madness, and then effectively terrorize … well everyone. Indeed, Nicholson turns in a nuanced performance that is widely considered to be among, if not the very best, in his illustrious career.
CAPE FEAR (R)
Artist: ROBERT De NIRO
Director: Martin Scorsese Film Release: November 13th 1991 / Amblin
The are worse things than the existence of hyper violent psychopaths. Among them A. Becoming the revenge obsessed focus of said hyper violent psychopath. B. Having your friends and family standing in the line of fire of said revenge. C. Understanding that the hyper violent psychopath has a legitimate axe to grind. D. Anything beyond that is the stuff of police blotters and autopsy reports. Indeed, Director Martin Scorcese’s Cape Fear (1991) possesses those plot elements and more. The violent psychopath character in question is ‘Max Cady’, an ex-convict – brutal rapist. The villainy of Max Cady is portrayed by the great Robert DeNiro, who does so in true virtuoso fashion, which is to say, audiences believe that he’s a highly combustible psychopath with a chip on his shoulder, while the sweat of treacherous revenge soaks through his tee-shirt. In short Max Cady is terrifying.
Although it’s true that many attorneys have dismal approval ratings in American pop culture, one can’t help feeling empathic, and then terrified for Nicholas Nolte’s character in Cape Fear. Worse still for Nolte’s character, ‘Sam Bowden’, is that Cady has had 14 years in which to nurture his anger and plot his revenge. Indeed, Max Cady is fully prepared to have Bowden’s family and friends become collateral damage as part of his vengeful plan.
Artist: ANTHONY PERKINS
Director: Albert Hitchcock Film Release: September 8th, 1960 / Paramount
Let’s face it, even the roughest, toughest, most skilled in violence, of us are forced to pause when in a confrontation with a certifiable lunatic. There is no accounting or strategizing for a completely unpredictable human being who is also criminally insane. Playing a character who suffers from Disassociated Identity Disorder which causes him to express two or more personalities, with one of them being a murderous sexual deviant, doesn’t exactly sound like a proverbial walk in the park, yet Anthony Perkins plays motel proprietor ‘Norman Bates’, with flawless efficiency. To wit, his performance has terrified untold millions of film audiences.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 psychological horror/thriller is widely considered to be among the very best films ever made. This is certainly true if the category is ‘psychoanalytical thriller’. This film has a creepy theme and Hitchcock deft use of darkness and shadows is legendary. So to is the famous ‘Shower Scene’ featuring the unwitting victim Janet Leigh, a shower, a butcher’s knife, and Norman Bates committing human slaughter. There is nothing in this scene that is arbitrary. Some 77 separate camera angles, and 50 individual edits were used in the shower scene, which runs for nearly 4 excruciating minutes. The bottom line is this, ‘Psycho’ is an all-time great film, and ‘Norman Bates’ is one of the most memorable, if not terrifying villains in film history.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (R)
Artist: KEVIN SPACEY
Director: Bryan Singer Film Release: August 16th 1995 / Gramercy, Polygram
There are more than a few compelling aspects to Kevin Spacey’s genius level portrayal of esoteric criminal luminary, Keyser Soze. Indeed, Director Bryan Singer’s 1994 film noir classic ‘The Usual Suspects’, is the progeny of a cleverly constructed script in which the sinister of this character and the trepidation that the mere mention of his name manifests, is accomplished largely through a series of vivid anecdotal ‘boogeyman’ tales and recollections from thrice removed criminals who have done work for him. A master villain who traffics in the manipulation of members of a vast criminal underworld, Keyser Soze is exceedingly proficient at being at once omnipresent, and surreptitious. Thematically, it’s the story of a nefarious mastermind who like the Devil, succeeds by weaponizing the notion that he may be standing right behind you, even if though it’s possible that he may not exist.
Even outlaws have to take precautions, and the plot of ‘The Usual Suspects’ revolves around a group of criminal all-stars being rounded up by law the NYPD, suspects as it were in a truck hijacking the week previous. Unbeknownst to this group of professional criminals is that Keyser Soze stands among them. Kevin Spacey is masterful as the mysterious villain Soze, disguised as a functional, albeit it physically handicapped thief. A character who surreptitiously pulls strings, and exercises influence while overseeing his true objective which is to marshal this group into a virtual ‘suicide mission’ with a $100 million hanging in the balance. Sound intriguing?
‘McManus’ / Stephen Baldwin and ‘Keyser Soze’ / Kevin Spacey
‘The Usual Suspects’ is an exceptional example of the modern film noir crime drama, with ‘Keyser Soze’ being one of the most compelling villains in movie history.
THE DARK KNIGHT (R)
Artist: HEATH LEDGER
Academy Award Winner: ‘Best Supporting Actor’ (2009)
Director: Christopher Nolan Film Release: July 18th 2008 / Warner Bros.
Experience has a special way of being professorial. The assumption is that we live and (hopefully) we learn. To the extent that your author has learned anything of consequence in this life, chief among them might be that the good and truly gifted are just as mortally fragile as the awful and irredeemable. Indeed, Heath Ledger’s January 2008 accidental overdose death is indicative of this notion. His final major (Oscar-Winning) performance as agent of chaos, ‘Joker’ in ‘The Dark Knight’, is nothing short of sublime. Heath Ledger was able to tap into the ‘Joker’ characters existential pain which he channeled through seething contempt, villainous intention, and nihilist minded activities. Ledger was able to let audiences in on the virulence of ‘Joker’s’ malevolence, which occupied the space where his soul and humanity were once tethered, but had long been vacated. The ability to accurately portray the depth and complexity of this character, requires generational talent. Heath Ledger demonstrated how this was exactly how his talents should be considered.
‘The Dark Knight’ is an incomparable film which made its theatrical debut during the summer of 2008. Indeed, Director Christopher Nolan’s film is a masterpiece rendition of the dark and brooding D.C. Comics ‘Batman’ series, which features the exploits of the masked vigilante detective known as ‘Batman’. It is virtually impossible to divorce any critical considerations of ‘The Dark Knight’ from the auspices of the legendary performance given by Heath Ledger. Transcendent acting work that has served to entertain and even inspire untold generations of audiences, and future thespians.
To be clear, Heath Ledger didn’t simply ‘play’ the arch-villain character ‘Joker’. In truth Ledger ‘redefined’ how this character is exists in our consciousness. Heath Ledger demonstrated how the ‘Joker’ character should be played.