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Top 10 Movie Villains: The Baddest Bad Guys Ever Captured on Film

By Ian White

Hollywood has created some memorable villains over the years; some of them even mean enough to punch their own mothers. These ten roles have passed the test of time and remain our all-time favorite heavies in screen history.

The Public Enemy - Tom Powers (James Cagney)

The quintessential “bad guy” was adept at both comedy and playing the heavy, and could have even done either in Yiddish which he picked up on the streets of New York. This tough and classy Irishman could sing and dance and punch your teeth out, and did so on many occasions. Often credited as the film that gave “gangster” films their big break, and a young Cagney full of fire and brimstone with an ending you can’t look away from. Also credited as the film that inspired grapefruit consumption at the breakfast table.

The Wild One - Chino (Lee Marvin)

Marvin made a career out of being tough, and it was something that started early for him in life. After being tossed out of dozens of schools as a kid, Marvin joined the Marine Corps and was wounded in 1944 during the Battle of Saipan. Marvin’s 6’ 3” frame intimidated everyone but the Godfather in this average biker film (first that allowed the brand of the motorcycles to be visible) where two gangs fight it out for control of the streets and a trophy.

On the Waterfront - Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb)

He was anything but "friendly" in Elia Kazan's tale of corruption on the docks with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. Cobb's thuggish "Johnny Friendly" gets away with murder until Terry Malloy decides to stand up to him and bring justice to the waterfront. One of the finest films that Hollywood ever produced with brilliant writing and acting from all involved. Brando could have been a contender, but Cobb was the heavyweight champion of sleaze and graft in this classic.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly - Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef)

Van Cleef went from being an accountant to a sailor in the Navy to one of the most revered villains in film history with more than 160 appearances to his credit. With his career in decline, he was cast in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and everything turned around for him, leading to his magnificent performance as “Sentenza” opposite Clint Eastwood in the most popular of the spaghetti westerns. Van Cleef’s rugged good looks and toughness made him a formidable foe, even to the man with no name. Unforgiving, cruel, and quick on the draw.

Leon/The Professional - Stansfield (Gary Oldman)

Playing odd and troubled characters has never been a problem for Oldman who made a lot of noise with his portrayal of Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, but his real strength as an actor -- playing sleazy, vicious bad guys was put on display in Luc Besson’s tale of a lonely assassin who is forced to protect a 12 year-old girl (Natalie Portman) from a gang of killer cops led by Oldman. Oldman’s relentless pursuit of the witness who can send him to the electric chair gets messy as the experienced Leon (Jean Reno) kills anything that attempts to get between him and Mathilda.

Little Caesar - Rico (Edward G. Robinson)

The 5’ 5” Robinson (Goldenberg) arrived in New York from Romania at age 10 and studied to be a rabbi, before taking up acting at City College, which would lead to a distinguished career as one of the finest actors on the silver screen. Snubbed by the Academy for decades, Robinson would finally receive recognition for his work with a lifetime achievement award in 1971. This 1931 crime drama pits Robinson, a brazen and violent hoodlum, against the underbelly of the big city. Rico (Robinson) has big plans, but rivals requiring some lead stand in his way. Clearly the inspiration for Scarface and every gangster film like it. The ultimate irony, of course, was that Robinson was the polar opposite of every bad guy he ever played.

Scarface - Antonio Camonte (Paul Muni)

The distinguished Academy Award winner’s career and life was cut short by heart problems but he left behind an interesting body of work that holds up to scrutiny. Improperly labeled as the life story of Al Capone, although sharing a number of interesting similarities, Scarface would catapult the former Yiddish Theater actor to stardom. Muni, after taking down his boss, the last of the old-school gangsters, finds himself in charge of a large crime syndicate, which he protects through the use of violence. While firmly in control of his empire, the one thing that he can’t control proves to be his undoing. The overprotective brother kills those he loves to keep a close watch on his blossoming sister. The world is yours indeed. For about ten minutes.

Cape Fear - Max Cady (Robert Mitchum)

Come out, come out, wherever you are. DeNiro may have added a new angle to this story in the later remake, but he certainly wasn’t as tough as Robert Mitchum, whose stare could scare the lead out of a bullet. Max Cady is a free man, and the lawyer who put him behind bars for assault is going to pay dearly, starting with the family dog. PETA would have gone berserk had they seen this one. Mitchum takes one look at Bowden’s young, innocent daughter, and one knows exactly where this story is headed.

The French Connection - Jimmy Doyle (Gene Hackman)

Dirty Harry may have carried a .44 Magnum and been quick with verbal jab, but “Popeye” Doyle was as hard as they come. Although not technically a villain, Hackman's Doyle makes our list because he's as tough and they come.  Hackman, in perhaps his greatest role, is on a one-man mission to take down an international heroin ring with a French connection. The Oscar winner doesn’t play quite as well after all of these years, but the car chase through New York is still unforgettable.

Les Diaboliques - Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse)

In perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, Paul Meurisse stars as the dead guy – or is he? His naughty wife and his mistress decide to bump him off and everything goes wrong from then on. Hitchcock was so upset that he lost out on the project (by 30 minutes, reportedly) that he almost ran off and joined the circus. Dark, beautifully shot, and as close to perfection as a movie gets.

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