In honor of the upcoming Great Villain Blogathon, in which I will be discussing Laurence Olivier’s delicious portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III, I’m putting up a short list of some of my other favorite all-time movie villains, some familiar in the popular culture and some not so much.
Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, The Most Dangerous Game)
Hollywood’s all too brief pre-code period had some great baddies, such as Warren Williams’ ruthless executive in Employee’s Entrance and Frederic March’s manic Mr. Hyde in the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but my personal favorite is Leslie Banks’ Count Zaroff from the original film adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game. This is a fun performance, alternatively refined and vicious, with his phoney Russian accent providing a little bit of camp to the proceedings as well. Whether he’s stalking his human prey with bow in hand or hungrily leering at damsel in distress Fay Wray, Zaroff is the highlight of this already excellent action-horror movie.
Robot Maria (Brigitte Helm, Metropolis)
While certainly a visual feast and a great display of the German Expressionist style of the 1920s, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis sports a rather trite story and one-dimensional characters, but there are additional highlights to enjoy. Brigitte Helm plays both the saintly Maria and her evil robot doppelganger, and it is in the latter role that she steals every scene, twitching with malice and erotic energy, all smirks and smoldering. Her “sexy dance” is without doubt the campiest scene in the film as well as one of the most memorable.
Princess Kushana (Yoshiko Sakakibara, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)
Hayao Miyazaki stopped putting outright villains in his work around the early 1980s (though Colonel Muska of Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a throwback); in the 1984 film adaptation of his own (and then unfinished) manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Kushana is one of the human antagonists, though it would be inaccurate to call her a “bad guy.” Coming from the militaristic Tolmekian kingdom, she serves as a foil to the film’s gentle, pacifistic protagonist, but her proposed violent methods for dealing with the spreading of the Sea of Decay (called the Toxic Jungle in the DIsney dub) do not come from some simplistic Captain Planet villain motivation. There is a personal element behind what she does which makes her interesting even in this adaptation, which unfortunately could not include more of her back story from the manga.
The Phantom (Lon Chaney, The Phantom of the Opera)
Several actors have played the Phantom over the decades since the original novel’s publication, but aside from perhaps Robert Englund and Michael Crawford, no one comes close to Lon Chaney’s portrayal in the 1925 film version. Due to mediocre direction and sub-par supporting actors, the film is not as strong as it could have been, but Chaney saves the ship from going down. Due to having his face covered by a mask for a good deal of time, Chaney’s skillful and restrained pantomime is allowed to shine. Mere movements of his hands and slight changes in posture express the Phantom’s pain, rage, and isolation better than any dialogue ever could. And of course, do I even need to say anything about that great make-up?