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Rogues’ Gallery

Cinema’s greatest villains

By David Lehman | November 28, 2020
Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 1944's Gaslight (Everett Collection)
Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 1944's Gaslight (Everett Collection)

There’s a special onus on the villains in crime dramas. They have to be wicked, but they also have to make that wickedness interesting. Whether by being singular in some way, or by virtue of fine acting, or because what they do is so despicable, they offend even those of us who might ordinarily root for the scoundrel. Then again, some of them simply impress us with their roguish charm or sharp-toothed wit.

Who are the greatest rogues, then? Many can be found in Hitchcock’s thrillers, in which the culprit can be two people, himself and his murderous mother (Anthony Perkins in Psycho). Or there is madness in the man’s method, and he steals every scene he’s in (Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train). Or the villains are forces of nature wreaking havoc on humanity, which has mistreated them along with the rest of the planet (the birds in The Birds). But let’s omit Hitchcock’s bad guys, as well as the homicidal freaks in movies starring Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who might otherwise dominate the list.

Here are more of my favorite miscreants:

Gregory Anton, Gaslight (1944)


In an effort to bury the evidence of a murder he has committed, Charles Boyer in Gaslight (dir. George Cukor; 1944) compounds one sin with another by mounting a campaign to persuade Ingrid Bergman that she is insane. His strategy has made “gaslight” a verb signifying the sort of mental manipulation that sadistic spouses and bosses have been known to inflict.

Waldo Lydecker, Laura (1944)

In Laura, the critic and radio personality with the unforgettable moniker Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) says he writes “with a goose quill dipped in venom.” Lydecker represents the movies’ idea of what a critic is: vain, effete, scornful, condescending, and conceited.

Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, Double Indemnity (1944)

In director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, adulterous wife (Barbara Stanwyck) and insurance-executive boyfriend (Fred MacMurray) eliminate inconvenient husband, then prepare to betray each other. Says she: “We’re both rotten.” He: “Only you’re a little more rotten.”

Veda, Mildred Pierce (1945)

Ann Blyth plays Veda, Joan Crawford’s daughter in Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz. Veda is an ingrate, a liar, a blackmailer, a murderer, and worst of all, a spoiled brat.

Tommy Udo, Kiss of Death (1947)

In Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark plays the giggling psychopath who uses an electric cord to strap a disabled woman in her wheelchair and roll her down a fatal flight of tenement stairs.

Kathie Moffatt, Out of the Past (1947)

For a terminally treacherous femme fatale who may look innocent but kills without compunction, you can’t beat Jane Greer as Kathie Moffatt in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

Madge, Dark Passage (1947)

Happy only when others suffer, Agnes Moorehead in director Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage embodies the spirit of spite. She also kills people.

Harry Lime, The Third Man (1949)

In director Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) sells tainted penicillin in postwar Vienna, and, from the top of the Riesenrad in the Prater amusement park, looks down disdainfully at the people below as if they have the significance of ants. Welles doesn’t show up until the movie is half over and gets very little airtime, but he does speak—and apparently improvise—the movie’s most memorable lines: “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Cody Jarrett, White Heat (1949)

James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh, is an 18-karat psychopath. On receiving news of his adored mother’s death, he freaks out so violently in the prison cafeteria that hardened criminals can only watch in awe. Jarrett dies at the height of his glory, atop a tower on fire and about to collapse. “Made it, Ma!” he yells. “Top of the world!”

Vince Stone, The Big Heat (1953)

Lee Marvin flings a pot of boiling coffee at girlfriend Gloria Grahame’s face, disfiguring it, in The Big Heat, directed by Fritz Lang. There are murders and a car bomb in the picture, too, but nothing equals the violence of that flung pot of coffee.

Bud Corliss, A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

In A Kiss Before Dying, Gerd Oswald’s film based on Ira Levin’s book of the same title, Robert Wagner plays the calculating cad who invites his pregnant girlfriend (Joanne Woodward), an heiress, to meet him at the town’s Municipal Building, ostensibly to obtain a marriage license. Timing the meeting to coincide with the bureau’s lunch break, he lures the would-be bride to the roof and hurls her to her screaming death. She has a sister, and guess who’s next on his list to woo? In the 1991 remake, Matt Dillon plays the murderous monster, Sean Young plays both sisters, and the scene of the crime is Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Mark Lewis, Peeping Tom (1960)

Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) is the Peeping Tom of Michael Powell’s movie. An aspiring filmmaker, Lewis slays a woman, records her death throes with a portable camera, and watches the film in his den. The movie allegorizes the cinematic experience and implicates the audience in the killer’s voyeurism.

Max Cady, Cape Fear (1962)

The example of Max Cady as portrayed by Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear, directed by J. Lee Thompson, goes a long way toward refuting the notion that evil is a function of environment. Hell bent on revenge, indifferent to moral restraints, and possessed of great cunning, he embodies, in Milton’s phrase, “darkness visible.”  (For my essay on Mitchum’s work in this film, see here).

Senator John Yerkes Iselin and Mrs. Eleanor Iselin, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

In John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury is the brains of the assassination plot and James Gregory is her stooge of a husband, a stand-in for Joe McCarthy. The plot calls for the recurrence of a certain playing card, which triggers a hypnotic trance in which brainwashed war hero Laurence Harvey will do what he is told, including assassinating designated individuals. In Lansbury’s honor, the award for best villain might be dubbed the Queen of diamonds.

Alain Charnier, The French Connection (1971)

With his hat, walking stick, and enjoyment of fine French food in a tony midtown Manhattan restaurant on a cold December day, while the cop on his tail freezes his ass off holding a paper cup of coffee, Fernando Rey in The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin, is as debonair as he is clever. Disappearing at film’s end, he escapes penalty as few criminal masterminds do.

Verbal, The Usual Suspects (1994)

In 1864, Charles Baudelaire crafted the rogues’ motto when he observed that one of Satan’s “artifices” is “to induce men to believe that he does not exist.” In Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, Verbal, played by Kevin Spacey offers this paraphrase, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Verbal demonstrates the validity of the statement by enduring hours of police grilling, using his powers of narrative invention to confuse the authorities, who realize only after releasing him that he is responsible for all the mayhem and murder in the film.

Julian Wilde, Lured (1947)

Speaking of Baudelaire and his relevance to noir, Sir Cedric Hardwicke merits dishonorable mention as the creepy “poet killer” who sends poems to the police in imitation of Baudelaire to announce his murders in Douglas Sirk’s Lured. The film is worth seeing also for Lucille Ball as the damsel in distress and for George Sanders who, for a happy change, is cast as the misunderstood good guy.

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