Cinema villains come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, and species. When a villain works, he/she/it can make a bad movie tolerable, a good movie great, and a great movie transcendental. So in compiling my list of fave villains I found a surprising number of great characters/performances in so-so (or worse) movies popping into my head. Conversely, I also noted how many decent movies suffered from the lack of a compelling villain in the lead.
For my list, I deliberately eliminated movie monsters. Actual monsters either have decided strains of sympathy in their makeup (Boris Karloff's definitive Frankenstein's Monster, for example, is a large, misunderstood child 'neath his large and lethal exterior) or they're big, mindless killing machines (a la Bruce the Shark or Ridley Scott's aliens). So, in the end, my notion of a screen villain is generally a (usually human) character who actively engineers misfortune for some or all of the other characters in the film; there's really no more poetic definition for it.
Below dwell a few of my absolute favorite screen bad guys, in no particular order. Cue hisses...
1) The Falcon Hunting Collective in The Maltese Falcon (1941): Sydney Greenstreet's urbane but simmeringly evil Casper Gutmann, the lisping serpentine Joel Cairo courtesy of Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook's impotent pouting wannabe thug Wilmer--Christ, any one of these characters in a good noir would be great, but all three in the same flick? An embarassment of riches.
2) Peter Lorre in M (1930): One of the creepiest, most unsettling psychos in film history--all the more so due to Fritz Lang's masterful manipulation of audience sympathies at the movie's end, and Lorre's magnificent juxtaposition of forlorn melancholy and repellant deviance.
3)Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (1974): I saw this when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and it marked the first time I'd encountered a screen villain who would f*** anyone up at ANY TIME, never registering one whit of emotion, remorse, or hesitation, never telegraphing his intentions. Shaw's work in this overlooked thriller still chills me to the marrow.
4) The Duke of New York, Escape from New York (1981): Isaac Hayes IS one bad mutha--shut yo' mouth. And since my sage wife recommended I edit my previous comments lest they incur censorship, let's just say that when the inevitable remake of this cult classic surfaces, that Hayes should still play The Duke, and George W. Bush would be a perfect shoo-in for the Donald Pleasance role...
5) Marjoe Gortner in Earthquake (1975): Disaster movies seldom provide strong villain roles, unless you consider Mother Nature or some a$$hole who's too cheap to install a properly functioning sprinkler system in his high-rise a villain. But tucked away in this ridiculous/fun disaster outing lies a great, finely-tuned performance by former real-life child evangelist Gortner. His simmering and ultimately explosive turn as a sexually-repressed, tightly wound National Guardsman represents equal parts queasy reality (everyone in the 'burbs knew someone like this fatigue-wearing wannabe ServiceFreak) and nigh-operatic histrionics.
6) Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) in Goldfinger (1963): Corpulent, greedy, smart, ruthless...the best of the Bond baddies, in large part because he's one of the most plausible.
7) Richlieu and his cronies in The Three Musketeers (1973): Filmgoers and critics sometimes give the legendary Charlton Heston short shrift thanks to his politics and his occasional tendency to chew the scenery. But when he's on (which is frequent), he's riveting. His work as the cerebral but power-hungry cleric has always been sorta overlooked for its subtle intelligence. Christopher Lee's Rochefort (his aloof exterior barely conceals sublimely tarnished honor), and Faye Dunaway's black widow of a Milady complete the other two points of an effective triumvirate of treachery.
8) Private Eye Visser (Emmet Walsh) in Blood Simple (1986): One of the greatest characters to surface in a modern-day film noir. So sleazy and oily you practically feel like you need to bathe every time he's onscreen.
9)Rene Bellacq (Paul Freeman) and Toht (Ronald Lacey), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Disparate but perfectly complimentary evildoers. Freeman's elegant and charming archaeologist-for-sale could be Paul Henreid gone venal, and Lacey's turn as the cold and hissing snake of a Nazi agent is a loving homage (to the great Peter Lorre) that effervescently transcends imitation. The lack of similarly strong villains in the latter two Indiana Jones movies hobbled both immeasureably.
10) Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner (1982): Kudos to the always-reliable Hauer for managing to make this cruel and cunning renegade-robot-on-the-run achingly human by Blade Runner's end.
11) Bill McKinney and Herb "Cowboy" Coward in Deliverance (1972): Every urbanite's fear of backwoods hillbilly Americana gets vomited up in brilliantly gruesome relief in McKinney and Coward's creepily effective work.
12) Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat (1949): Cagney's deluded and short-fused gangster created the template for pathological cinema miscreants for years to come.
13) Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960): Hitchcock's genius lay in seeing the potential for creepy psychosis under Perkins' awkward and withdrawn exterior, but Perkins had the acting chops (and, yes, subtlety) to make Norman live. Forget the shower scene: Norman Bates' final terrifyingly saturnine glance into the camera at the end of Psycho gets my vote for the most inescapeably terrifying scene in a movie, ever. Period.
14) Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It's a Wonderful Life (1946): Ever get the feeling that Mr. Potter is currently running ClearChannel? Or maybe that he's holding political office about now? Barrymore's hissable-yet-never-over-the-top old greedhead seems more timely now than ever.