Ten of the Best On-Screen Villains
For me, one of the great joys in reading fiction is meeting new people. Even the crazy ones. Okay, especially the crazy ones.
The challenge of casting literary villains in film is that quite often readers have their own ideas about who should play the parts. Add to this the very real considerations of which actor or actress can fill the seats, who is available at the time, and the intersection of great role and great performer becomes an almost magical thing.
Regardless of path — psycho or socio — here is a list of my favorite casting choices from book to screen, many of whom were not the director’s first pick.
Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck / Double Indemnity by James M. Cain / Directed by Billy Wilder)
On screen, Cain’s femmes fatales tend to make their entrances in white (see also the turbaned Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice). From the moment Stanwyck descends the stairs wearing that scandalous ankle bracelet, insurance peddler Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is snared. Later in the film, when Phyllis’s inebriated husband signs on the dotted line, the shackle is forever locked, and the key swallowed.
Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates / Misery by Stephen King / Directed by Rob Reiner)
After Bette Midler turned down the role of Annie Wilkes, the home care nurse from hell, director Rob Reiner decided he wanted a virtual unknown to play the part so that the audience would not have any notion of the character’s range. All writers like to meet their fans, but not the ones who say, “God, I love you” with a sledgehammer in hand.
Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers / Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov / Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Quilty is an amoral, pedophilic, kidnapping child pornographer. What’s not to loathe? I was a little too young to read Lolita when it was first published, but I can’t imagine Peter Sellers was anybody’s idea for the role. I’m glad it was Stanley Kubrick’s. Sellers’s witty, urbane party boy oozes 1950s hypercivilized sleaze.
Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem / No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy / Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
From the moment remorseless hit man Anton Chigurh steps onto the screen, he looks almost comical in his bowl haircut and sun-leached complexion. But there is something feral in his red-rimmed eyes that tells us there is a cold-blooded killer lurking beneath that calm exterior. And then there’s his weapon of choice: the captive bolt pistol. You don’t want to lose a coin toss to this guy, friend-o.
Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher / One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey / Directed by Milos Forman)
“The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury.” Sure, Kesey’s description of The Big Nurse is from Chief Bromden’s admittedly fogged perspective, but Louise Fletcher, in an Oscar-winning performance, is the devil in starched white.
Jame Gumb (Ted Levine / The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris / Directed by Jonathan Demme)
After testing a number of actors for the role of Buffalo Bill, Jonathan Demme saw Ted Levine and called him “terrifying.” The audition was terrifying. Levine went on to appear in Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate and has since played a number of unsavory characters, but his tufted peacock dance in front of the mirror goes down as one of the creepiest moments in crime-film history.
Harry Lime (Orson Welles / The Third Man by Graham Greene / Directed by Carol Reed)
Motives for crime usually fall into one of three main categories: passion, greed, or revenge. The depth of Harry Lime’s greed is overshadowed only by the depth of his depravity: profiteering off the suffering of children. It’s hard not to cheer his operatic, chiaroscuro demise in the sewers beneath the “smashed, dreary city” of Vienna. Welles brings an indelible, oily charm to a role initially offered to Noel Coward (!).
Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson / Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier / Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Who needs ghosts when Mrs. Danvers is your chief attendant and tormentor? As much a part of Manderley as its newel posts and wainscoting, Judith Anderson’s icy, spectral countenance seems to inhabit every shadow of the estate. “You’re overwrought, madam. I’ve opened a window for you.” Pure evil.
HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain / 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke / Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
I recently read an interview with Kubrick in which he revealed that the original casting for HAL 9000 was Martin Balsam. I love Mr. Balsam’s work, but the voice of Douglas Rain still chills me every time I hear it. Polite, courteous, deferential, murderous. Never before or since has such a warm red light been so cold.
Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer / Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin / Directed by Roman Polanski)
Tony-winning actor Blackmer’s portrayal of the solicitous, devil-worshiping neighbor Roman Castavet is as a classic boulevardier: well-traveled, well-read, and highly opinionated. If ever a cultured older man offers you a vodka blush, run.
Honorable mentions: Raymond Burr in Rear Window; Tom Noonan in Manhunter; Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear; Anne Baxter in All About Eve; Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me.
Future mention: Whoever gets to play Morgan Sloat in The Talisman. Let’s go, Hollywood.