Recent hot cinema topics such as the portrayal of the Mandarin character in Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and speculations about what classic Star Trek villain Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in J.J Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness was modeled after leading up to the film’s release, among others, underline the importance of great villains in genre cinema.
Creating a great cinematic villain is a difficult goal that makes for an incredibly rewarding and memorable viewer experience when it is achieved.
We’ll now take a look at the greatest film villains. Other writing on this subject tends to be a bit unfocused, as “greatest villain” articles tend to mix live-action human villains with animated characters and even animals. Many of these articles also lack a cohesive quality as they attempt to cover too much ground at once by spanning all of film history.
This article focuses on the 1970’s, one of the greatest filmmaking decades.
With that in mind, the criteria for this article is as follows: the villains must be from live-action films-no animated features-and must pose some type of direct or indirect lethal threat. The villains can be either individuals or small groups that act as one unit.
The villains must be human or human in appearance, so no Andromeda Strain from Robert Wise’s 1971 classic of the same name, no shark from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws and no Proteus computer from Donald Cammell’s 1977 The Demon Seed.
Also, individuals that are the central protagonists/antiheroes of their respective films were excluded, so characters like Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange could not be considered.
Robert Quarry as Count Yorga in Count Yorga, Vampire (Bob Kelljan, 1970) and The Return Of Count Yorga (Bob Kelljan, 1971): Quarry delivers his two finest acting performances in this pair of highly entertaining low budget vampire films. It was Quarry who convinced the first film’s producers to abandon their original intention to make a horror-tinged softcore sex film and instead make a serious horror film, allowing the actor to create one of horror cinema’s most underrated vampires and one of the great screen villains of the 1970’s.
Richard Boone as John Fain in Big Jake (George Sherman, 1971): Boone, best known to fans of classic television as Paladin in the Western series Have Gun-Will Travel, excelled at playing darker characters on the big screen. Even his finest lead acting performance in the excellent Western Rio Conchos has a very grim edge to it. In Big Jake, Boone plays a ruthless kidnapper who-despite limited screen time-leaves an unforgettable impression.
Michael Gothard as Father Barre in The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971): Gothard turns in an energetic, frenzied performance as a driven witch-hunter in director Russell’s greatest and most controversial film. This, the best acting of Gothard’s big screen career, is even more interesting when contrasted with his incredibly subdued performance as the assassin Locque in John Glen’s 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
Andrew Robinson as Scorpio in Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971): Robinson hits his first big screen acting role out of the park as a psychopath being hunted by Clint Eastwood’s Inspector Harry Callahan. One has to wonder when examining Robinson’s film resume –was he so effective at portraying the menacing, unbalanced Scorpio that it made film producers hesitant to hire him?
While Robinson’s overall acting resume is certainly impressive, particularly in television-let’s not forget his brilliant portrayal of the recurring character Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine-it’s puzzling how an actor playing an instant classic screen villain in a hit film was not besieged with big screen character role offers in the immediate wake of Dirty Harry’s success, a situation that simply does not and would not occur today.
Perhaps the focus on Clint Eastwood and the film’s approach to violence-controversial in 1971- took too much of the spotlight away from Robinson’s outstanding performance or perhaps this performance from a then-unknown actor was a little too convincing for some.
Anthony Zerbe as Matthias in The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971): One of the most interesting and unique characters actors of his generation easily emerges as the best villain of the four feature film adaptations of Richard Matheson’s classic apocalyptic novel I Am Legend from 1954. While some critics maintain that the novel’s never been done correctly and The Omega Man certainly has not aged well, there’s no denying the quality and effect of Zerbe’s menacing screen presence in this version.
William Marshall as Mamuwalde in Blacula (William Crain, 1972): The powerful and charismatic Marshall took a page out of the Robert Quarry playbook and altered the filmmakers’ original vision for the film, taking his character and the film itself into much more serious and memorable territory. An underrated talent, Marshall never had the big screen acting career he deserved and would have made the perfect casting choice for The Duke in John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape from New York and the Thulsa Doom character in Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982).
Minoru Oki & Shin Kishida & Shogen Nitta as The Hidari Brothers in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart At The River Styx (Kenji Misumi, 1972): While ultimately no match for the amazing combat skills of Tomisaburo Wakayama’s Ogami Itto, this lethal trio unites against a small army of warriors then The Lone Wolf himself during the film’s desert climax, providing viewers with one of the great sequences in the original six film series and one of the best showdowns in chambara film history. John Carpenter “appropriated” the look of the Hidari Brothers for the Thunder, Rain and Lightning characters in 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China.
Joe Don Baker as Molly in Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973): Baker turns in one of his finest pieces of acting in director Siegel’s superb crime film as an organized crime enforcer sent to recover stolen money and exact lethal revenge on the crew who took it. One of Baker’s standout scenes in the film is Molly’s confrontation with Andrew Robinson’s Harman character in a cramped trailer, showing Baker at his best.
Yul Brynner as The Gunslinger in Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973): Looking for the cinematic progenitor of James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character? You found it. Yul Brynner uses his amazing screen presence and very little dialogue to create this classic villain, a relentless killing machine with his sights set on anything human.
Westworld, written and directed by novelist, screenwriter and film director Michael Crichton, is the darker and superior precursor to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park, a softened screen adaptation of Crichton’s novel of the same name that deals with a similar premise.
Anthony Franciosa as Nick D’Salvio in Across 110th Street (Barry Shear, 1973): Franciosa plays a brutal, mentally unbalanced mob enforcer out to prove himself by recovering stolen syndicate money in this superb, too-often overlooked crime drama. A talented actor whose career was damaged by being deemed temperamental and difficult to work with, Franciosa delivers one of his best big screen performances in this film. Also seek out his performance in Harold Becker’s 1996 City Hall as mob boss Paul Zapatti, a too-brief but absolutely brilliant piece of acting.
Hal Holbrook as Lt. Briggs & Kip Niven as Astrachan, Tim Matheson as Sweet, David Soul as Davis and Robert Urich as Grimes in Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973): After dispatching Andrew Robinson’s psychotic Scorpio character in the first film, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan returns in a fantastic sequel to face off with a sinister commanding officer and group of lethal young cops who, fascinatingly, represent what the Harry Callahan character could’ve turned into under different circumstances. This small but highly formidable unit of villains helps make Magnum Force one of the great crime films of the 1970’s.
Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974): One of horror cinema’s most striking characters was unfortunately destined to be run into the ground by a series of inferior sequels and creatively dead remakes, but Hansen’s original characterization still holds up in the face of the dreck that inevitably follows in the wake of a horror film classic.
The flesh-mask wearing character’s first appearance is unforgettable and there is a brief and fascinating scene later in the film where Leatherface, portrayed by Hansen and director Hooper as a kind of man-child, paces nervously then sits in a chair as he panics, making strange child-like sounds.
Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 (Joseph Sargent, 1974): Shaw, one of the best James Bond villains in Terence Young’s 1963 From Russia With Love and a great villain in The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973) and Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976) along with his legendary role of Quint in Jaws, turns in one of his career-best performances in the first and by far the best of the three adaptations of John Godey’s novel.
Here Shaw plays the intelligent and highly organized leader of a gang of hijackers that takes control of a subway train. Vincent D’onofrio and John Travolta took the Mr. Blue role in subsequent adaptations but don’t come close to the high water mark set by Shaw’s performance.
Richard Jordan as Francis in Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976): The intense Jordan, one of the most interesting character actors of 1970’s cinema with outstanding performances in The Yakuza (Sydney Pollack, 1974) and Rooster Cogburn (Stuart Millar, 1975) among other films, shines here in one of his best roles as a driven “sandman” in pursuit of his rogue partner Logan.
Fondly remembered for its unique premise revolving around limited life spans, Logan’s Run-based on a 1967 novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson-is unsurprisingly slated to be remade but the actor cast in the part of Francis will have a highly memorable performance to live up to.
Laurence Olivier as Szell in Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976): Marathon Man, one of the best suspense thrillers in a decade known for a high number of quality films in the genre, features one of Olivier’s very best film acting performances.
The legendary stage and screen actor, known for his highly technical approach to character creation, transforms himself into an unforgettable villain and utters one of the most quoted lines in the suspense thriller genre as a Nazi out to secure his fortune in diamonds at any cost.
Jerry Reed as Bama McCall in Gator (Burt Reynolds, 1976): Great acting is where you find it and Reed’s superb performance in the otherwise weak Gator is a perfect example of this. Reed delivers the best part of the film as a Southern crime boss and, as I mentioned in my Supporting Actors: The Overlooked and Underrated article on this site, his “take or be taken” speech should be taught in film acting class in cinema and theatre schools everywhere.
Bruce Dern as Michael Lander in Black Sunday (John Frankenheimer, 1977): In one of the great suspense thrillers of the 1970’s, Dern plays a disturbed Vietnam War veteran who collaborates with a terrorist to engineer a mass murder at the Super Bowl in this adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel.
Dern was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hal Ashby’s 1978 Coming Home, in which he again plays a disturbed Vietnam War veteran in an obviously less genre-oriented piece. His intense acting in Black Sunday deserves more critical attention and should be considered one of the most accomplished performances of his long career.
Nick Castle as Michael Myers in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978): The original Michael Myers is a villain of the “unrelenting force” variety in the vein of Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in Westworld that has suffered from even more absurd overexposure than the Leatherface character via endless sequels and remakes.
Like the Leatherface scenario, the original is still the best as Castle and screenwriter/director Carpenter portray the murderous character as an almost robot-like embodiment of lethal madness, including unique touches such as a curious tilt of the head when Myers looks at one of his dead victims.
Christopher Plummer as Harry Reikle in The Silent Partner (Daryl Duke, 1978): Plummer portrays a brutal bank robber in this underrated crime film with a screenplay by Curtis Hanson from a novel by Anders Bodelsen.
The veteran actor, now in his early 80’s, continues his long and successful career, recently winning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010). Harry Reikle in Silent Partner is certainly not one of Plummer’s best-known roles but it is definitely one of his finest big screen performances.
Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979): While some film critics say that Kurtz is actually a victim, I don’t think the headless corpse of Fredric Forrest’s Chef character would agree. It’s a real credit to co-screenwriter/director Coppola-at the height of his talent during the decade that contains all of his best films-that he was able to work with the unprepared, improvisation-minded Brando and end up with a cohesive and unforgettable villain.
Samantha Eggar as Nola Carveth in The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979): Eggar, a talented actress with not entirely complimentary things to say about this classic horror film, nonetheless turns in an amazing performance as a mentally disturbed woman able to physically manifest her rage. This is one of Eggar’s great film performances in one of David Cronenberg’s best films.
Ian Holm as Ash in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979): Michael Fassbender may have taken the sinister android character to the next level in director Scott’s Prometheus (2012) but Holm’s Ash is still an all-time classic. Performance highlights include his attack on Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and his subsequent explanation-as a severed head- of the ship’s true purpose in one of the creepiest and most unique interrogation scenes ever put on film.
Malcolm McDowell as Captain Von Berkow in The Passage (J. Lee Thompson, 1979): Some film critics have compared McDowell’s portrayal of a sadistic SS officer in pursuit of a fleeing family to his Alex character from A Clockwork Orange and the comparison is not far off. While The Passage itself is a mixed bag in terms of overall quality, McDowell’s intense, energetic performance is ample reason to seek the film out.
Other notable screen villains of the 1970’s: These are memorable villainous performances that didn’t make the main section of the article but are all very much worth seeking out.
Al Lettieri as Sollozzo in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
William Smith as Brenner in Hammer (Bruce Clark, 1972)
Yaphet Kotto as Harvard Blue in Truck Turner (Jonathan Kaplan, 1974)
Max Von Sydow as Joubert in Three Days Of The Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975)
Frank Doubleday as White Warlord in Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976)
Michael Berryman, Janis Blythe, Cordy Clark, Lance Gordon, Arthur King and James Whitworth as The Cannibal Family in The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977)
Most overrated screen villain of the 1970’s:
David Prowse & James Earl Jones as Darth Vader in Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977): David Prowse is an imposing physical presence and James Earl Jones’ voice-work is very good but these positive elements are cancelled out by being trapped in a film that, despite its staggering popularity and influence, remains a heavily Disney-influenced family film that fails to resonate with seekers of the more challenging science fiction films of the 1970’s such as The Andromeda Strain, Westworld or Saul Bass’ brilliant Phase IV (1974).