We’re living in the age of villains. Don’t believe me? The last three Oscar winners for best supporting male roles played villains who quickly became part of the popular culture: Anton Chigurh, the Joker, and Colonel Hans Landa. Who doesn’t know them? Villains have always been one of cinema’s greatest assets. We love to hate them; we love their ambitions, their lines full of twisted humor and their over the top personalities. Sometimes we even like to see them succeed in their villainy.
Cinema has never had a shortage of villains, but after a century of cinema it’s likely that there are many great villains from the classic era who have fallen into oblivion. That’s why I’m focusing on cinema made between 1913 and 1960. With this list I hope to direct film lovers to some movies and villains that may not be very famous nowadays but decades later still have the power to surprise and excite.
Fantomâs: Fantômas, Louis Feuillade (1913)
In 1911 French writers Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain created one of the greatest villains of literature, the Lord of Terror, the Genius of Evil, the one and only Fantômas. So popular was this villain that the pioneer of film serials, Louis Feuillade, quickly brought him to the big screen in five movies between 1913 and 1914. What makes this villain from the early days of cinema so important? Well, he’s pretty much the modern villain. He made a complete break with gentlemanly criminals like Arsene Lupin or A.J. Raffles. Fantômas is evil, he knows he is evil, and he relishes in evil. Sadism and imaginative, bloody murders constitute much of his charm and endurance in popular culture. Even Professor Moriarty, a mastermind with dreams of world conquer, would, with his sense of honor, be terrified by this joyful, unrepentant mass murderer. He derails trains, sinks ships, kills women with poisonous bouquets, frames innocent men, and controls a vast army of criminals known as the ‘apaches’. He has no purpose, no weakeness, he can’t be reasoned with, he’s the living embodiment of evil for evil’s sake. He is, in a way, an ancestor of the Joker. Cinema has been kind to Fantômas. Since Feuillade there have many more adaptations, most notably a humorous trilogy in the 1960s and a no-nonsense 1980 German mini-series that brought him back to the vicious path. And there’s already a new adaptation in the works slated for 2011 and possibly starring Jean Reno.
The Vampires: The Vampires, Louis Feuillade (1915)
After the success of Fantômas, Feuillade invented his own villain. Not happy with concentrating the power of evil in one single entity, the French filmmaker created a secret criminal society known as The Vampires. Some individual members stand out, of course: Irma Vep (a simple anagram of vampire), the Grand Vampire, and Satanas, the group’s explosive and poison expert. With members from all social classes, the Vampires blackmail, rob and murder with little opposition from the authorities. Although the idea of a criminal secret empire wasn’t anything new in fiction at the time (their literary ancestors would be Paul Feval’s Black Coats), the Vampires constitute one of its earliest examples in cinema.
Dr. Mabuse: Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Fritz Lang (1922)
Like Fantômas, Dr. Mabuse began his criminal career in literature, created by the pen of Norbert Jacques. A master of disguise and possessor of hypnotic powers, Dr. Mabuse wants to raise a fortune to control Berlin, destroy the world and rule whatever is left. Operating from the shadows, Mabuse dictates orders and plans for his followers to carry out. His crimes always produce results so criminals never judge his plans, no matter how irrational they may seem in the short term. But to make sure he’s not betrayed, Dr. Mabuse keeps everyone under control through a complex network of information. After the first movie, Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and The One Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). Each time Lang recreated his villain for contemporary times; so in 1933 he was a grim parable of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power, and in 1960 he had become the embodiment of the danger a technocratic society can have over individual freedoms. Lang never allowed him to become irrelevant. If Dr. Mabuse ever threatens the world on the big screen again, let’s hope the filmmakers take this into account.
Hans Beckert: M, Fritz Lang (1931)
After sadists, criminal organisations, and world conquerors, the normal-looking Hans Beckert may seem insignificant by comparison. But there is a familiarity to his crimes that make him of the most chilling villains in this list. Beckert is a child murderer (and possibly a rapist too). He lures children with sweets and toys to kill them so he can silence the voices in his head. So gruesome are his crimes that not only the Berlin police but the criminal underworld is after him. Beckert by himself puts the city in a state of panic and general paranoia. Beckert is arguably one of the first serial killers in cinema. Peter Lorre confers a lot of humanity to him, though, and Beckert’s heartfelt justification of his murders before a mock-court composed of criminals constitutes one of the greatest moments of acting in film history.
Count Zaroff: The Most Dangerous Game, Irving Pichel/Ernest B. Schoedsack (1932)
Never trust a Count. In fact, always be suspicious of royalty in movies. But pay special attention to Counts. If they’re not trying to suck your blood, they’ll be trying to hunt. Just ask Count Zaroff, a ruthless hunter who decides to hunt the ultimate and most dangerous prey in the world: humans. After causing a ship to be wrecked on an island, the rich eccentric proceeds to hunt down the survivors. Count Zaroff is so insane and morally corrupted he starts seeing people as mere playthings. Such contempt for human life earns him a spot on this list of villains.
Gregory Anton: Gaslight, George Cukor (1944)
Gregory Anton looks like the perfect husband: rich, beautiful, polite, caring. Any woman would consider him a great catch. But for Ingrid Bergman’s character, Paula, he’s a secret tormentor in the guise of guardian angel. After Paula marries him, she starts listening to footsteps in the attic no one else hears; she loses things. Objects move from their usual places; she misremembers things. She starts behaving strangely in public. Is she losing her mind? In truth she’s being ‘gaslighted’ by her husband, an expert on psychological manipulation who’s slowly convincing her she’s going insane. This is a fascinating type of evil, intimate and low in scale, but nevertheless very real. Actor Charles Boyer plays the double-faced, charming villain perfectly.
Ellen Harland: Leave her to Heaven, John M. Stahl (1945)
Ellen is an egocentric sociopath who must be in control of everyone. When she marries a novelist everything seems fine until her possessiveness gets in the way of happiness and she starts destroying everything she senses may come between their relationship. There are scenes in this movie that still chill the bones after 65 years. Especially memorable is when Ellen takes her husband’s teenaged brother for a boat ride in a lake. The choice of the angelic and innocent-looking Gene Tierney was stop on. Looking at her, no one would ever believe her beautiful smile hides a monster.
Louis Mazzini: Kind Hearts and Coronets, Robert Hamer (1949)
If this movie is famous, it’s mostly because Alec Guinness plays eight characters in it. But this British dark comedy is also a perfect mixture of crime and humor. Louis, a distant relative of the Duke of D’Ascoyne, has the perfect plan to inherit his fortune: simply kill the eight inheritors ahead of him. Much of Louis’ appeal lies on the creativity that goes into his plans and his easy-going remorselessness, plus the humorous touch he adds to the murders, present in the witty voice over that accompanies each of them.
Dr. Julian Karswell: Night of the Demon, Jacques Torneur (1957)
Any villain inspired by the legendary Alistair Crowley deserves respect. Based on a short-story by the classic ghost story writer M. R. James, the villain of this movie is the mysterious Dr. Julian Karswell, a magician and leader of a cult. When a psychologist famous for debunking the paranormal threatens to expose crimes perpetrated by the cult, Dr. Karswell has no choice but to put a curse on him, which invokes a fire demon to kill the victim. With supernatural powers and demons at his disposal, Niall MacGinnis plays a formidable villain who transcends his Gothic type thanks to a dose of dry humor and an unsettling politeness, making him look like an ancient Hannibal Lecter.
Princess Asa Vajda: The Mask of Satan, Mario Bava (1960)
Nikolai Gogol’s work has inspired many movies, and none of his works has been so persistently adapted as a short-story called “Viy”, a tale of demons and witchcraft. In Mario Bava’s hands it becomes the story of Princess Asa Vadja, a 17th century Moldavian witch who’s sentenced to death by her brother. Before being killed she puts a curse on her brother’s descendants. Three hundred years later she returns to make good on her promise and in the process achieve immortality. Princess Asa Vadja is a lovely gothic villain who oozes sensuality and power and deserves more attention from film lovers.