10 Best Classic Movie Villains, Ranked


Traditionally, audiences are under the impression that the heroes are the sole essence of a story. While that might be true in some sense, the villains are essentially the ones who captivate moviegoers the most. Whether it’s their complexity or the method to their madness, villains always manage to resonate with audiences in a way a hero could never hope to. There are hundreds of memorable movie villains, such as Star Wars‘ Darth Vader, The Dark Knight‘s Joker and Anthony Hopkins‘ iconic Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Before these legends landed on the silver screen, many others came before them that deserve just as much recognition. Classic movies first provided a basic blueprint of good versus evil, and while there is an endless list of notable villains, a select few evildoers, like Cody Jarrett from White Heat and Bette Davis‘ spine-chilling Baby Jane Hudson, established a cinematic pedestal of their own. With iconic characters ranging from Harry Lime in The Third Man to The Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch of the West, these are the best classic movie villains.

10 Johnny Rocco – “Key Largo” (1948)

Played by Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson initially established himself as an icon of the gangster genre with popular titles such as The Little Giant and Little Cesar. In one of John Huston‘s best movies, Key Largo, he returns to his roots as the fierce mobster, Johnny Rocco. Robinson stars alongside Humphrey Bogart, who is a World War II veteran visiting the family of his former friend and comrade. While there, he realizes Rocco and his gang of thugs have taken over the family’s hotel.

Robinson delivers a terrifying, unpredictable performance as the rough-edged Rocco, who lacks any sense of empathy and respect for anyone but himself. From intimidating the patriarch of the family, played by Lionel Barrymore, to humiliating Claire Trevor, who portrays his ever-loyal girlfriend, Rocco reaches irredeemable heights, cementing him as one of the absolute best classic movie villains in Hollywood history.

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9 Norma Desmond – “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

Played by Gloria Swanson

Image via Paramount Pictures

In Billy Wilder‘s seminal noir Sunset Boulevard, former silent film star Gloria Swanson takes from her personal experience and impeccable talent and spins it into the gold that is the character of Norma Desmond. Sunset Boulevard follows a young screenwriter, Joe (William Holden), who finds himself in the presence of Desmond, a fading silent star determined to make a comeback. After Joe agrees to write a smash hit of a script, he begins to realize that Desmond aspires for him to be more than just her ticket back to the top, leading him to the point of no return.

Unlike most villains, Desmond does cultivate a sense of sympathy from audiences, as it’s impossible not to empathize with her as she mourns the loss of her beauty, age, and fame. Alas, as her obsession with Joe escalates, she eventually reveals her true colors. In reality, Norma is no better than the ones she believes used her before tossing her aside after getting what they wanted out of her. Norma is the embodiment of delusion, a grand dame of the silver screen who’s unable to accept her glory days are long behind her.

Sunset Boulevard

Release Date
August 10, 1950

Billy Wilder

William Holden , Erich von Stroheim

110 minutes

Charles Brackett , Billy Wilder

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8 Harry Lime – “The Third Man” (1949)

Played by Orson Welles

Harry Lime looking up with a scared expression in The Third Man
Image via London FIlms

Legendary filmmaker and Hollywood icon Orson Welles stars in The Third Man as Harry Lime, who initially appears to be an innocent victim of a senseless murder. As his friend, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), investigates the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death, he discovers that Lime faked his death to avoid prosecution for allowing children to be treated with diluted penicillin, which has either debilitated or given them a death sentence.

Between knowingly poisoning children to murdering to keep his damning secret and remain on the run, Lime is without a doubt one of the most evil and deplorable classic movie villains of all time. To add more to his black record, he involves his longtime friend, Martins, by luring him to Vienna with promises of a job for him, only to be used as a pawn in his grand selfish scheme. Machiavelian and ruthless, Lime is the worst kind of villain, a coward willing to sacrifice everyone else just to keep his skin safe.

The Third Man Film Poster

The Third Man

Release Date
February 1, 1950

Carol Reed

Orson Welles , Joseph Cotten , Alida Valli , Trevor Howard , Paul Hörbiger

93 Minutes

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7 Waldo Lydecker – “Laura” (1944)

Played by Clifton Webb

Otto Preminger‘s classic movie, Laura, is a staple in the film noir genre, recognized for its twisted plot and epic performances. Most notable is Clifton Webb as the sophisticated Waldo Lydecker, who is living proof of that old saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The film centers around a hard-boiled detective (Dana Andrews) who investigates the murder of a young woman, Laura (Gene Tierney). When he discovers that Laura is alive, the investigation turns to a search for who wanted her dead and why.

Lydecker has all the makings of someone who would be the last person anyone would suspect of murder. As he admits his insatiable desire and possession over Laura, he slowly transforms into a monster before the audience’s very eyes. Preminger knew what he was doing when he cast Webb, as his small, meek stature and delicate mannerisms would draw suspicion away from him. However, as his facade faded away, the idea of him being capable of cold-blooded murder appears entirely plausible.

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6 Baby Jane Hudson – “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962)

Played by Bette Davis

Hollywood icon Bette Davis stars in one of her best roles as the former child actress Baby Jane Hudson in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis stars alongside her real-life rival, Joan Crawford, who portrays Jane’s sister, Blanche, who originally lived in her sister’s shadow. After Jane’s career fizzles out, Blanche becomes a successful actress as an adult, but when a car accident leaves her in a wheelchair, Jane becomes her caretaker, which the former child star adamantly resents.

Jane goes to extreme measures to physically and psychologically torment her sister, making her a prisoner in her own house of horrors. With Jane’s creepy child-like appearance and her inability to let go of her past fame, Davis’ character slips deeper and deeper into madness, delivering a chilling and deranged performance that earned her a tenth and last Oscar nomination. Davis delivers a tour de force in the film, turning Baby Jane Hudson into one of the best classic villains in movie history.

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5 The Wicked Witch of the West – “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

Played by Margaret Hamilton

The Wicked Witch of the West glares threateningly in The Wizard of Oz
Image via MGM

The ultimate Golden Age classic, The Wizard of Oz stars Judy Garland as the young girl from Kansas, Dorothy Gale, who finds herself in the magical land of Oz after being carried there from a tornado. As Dorothy meets a string of whimsical characters on her journey to find her way back home, she accidentally crosses the Wicked Witch of the West, the epitome of a classic movie villain.

Played by Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West was one of the first major villains to grace the silver screen. Hamilton’s performance was so convincing that after the film’s release, her take on the archetype of the witch would become the norm. Upset at the terror her character inflicted on children worldwide, Hamilton appeared on kids’ television shows, hoping to ease their fears. From the witch’s signature cackle, emerald green skin and, of course, her menacing flying monkeys, the Wicked Witch of the West is straight out of a child’s worst nightmare.

The Wizard of Oz poster

The Wizard of Oz

Release Date
August 15, 1939

Victor Fleming , Mervyn LeRoy , Richard Thorpe , King Vidor

Judy Garland , Frank Morgan , Ray Bolger , Bert Lahr , Jack Haley , Billie Burke


Noel Langley , Florence Ryerson , Edgar Allan Woolf , L. Frank Baum , Irving Brecher , William H. Cannon

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4 Preacher Harry Powell – “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

Played by Robert Mitchum

Harry Powell carrying a small girl in 'The Night of the Hunter'
Image via United Artists

Known for his tough guy characters, Robert Mitchum takes the role of a villain to extensive new heights as the serial killer and con artist Harry Powell in the influential film noir The Night of the Hunter. Set during the Great Depression, Mitchum’s character shares a prison cell with Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who has been sentenced to death for killing two men during a bank robbery. Before he’s sent to the gallows, Powell learns that the authorities never recovered the stolen money. After his release, he travels to Harper’s hometown in search of the fortune.

Posing as a Preacher, Powell goes to extreme and unforgivable lengths in his crusade. He marries and murders Harper’s wife, played by Shelley Winters, and chases after their two children, who hold the key to the money’s location. Between Powell’s rationalization of abusing and killing women as doing “the Lord’s work” and being capable of taking the lives of innocent children, it’s safe to say that this villain earns a rightful spot in the pantheon of cinematic evil.

The Night of the Hunter Movie Poster

The Night of the Hunter

Release Date
July 26, 1955

Charles Laughton

Robert Mitchum , Shelley Winters , Lillian Gish , James Gleason

92 Minutes

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3 Cody Jarrett – “White Heat” (1949)

Played by James Cagney

James Cagney standing on top of a burning tank in White Heat - 1949
Images via Warner Bros.

Film legend and Oscar-winning actor James Cagney stars as the psychotic criminal Cody Jarrett in one of the greatest gangster movies ever, White Heat. Jarrett is the leader of a ruthless band of misfits and gets his kicks out of robbery and murdering anyone who stands in his way. After being sentenced, Jarrett escapes along with his cellmate and new trusted friend, Vic (Edmond O’Brien), who is actually an undercover agent planted by the authorities. As Jarrett gets his gang back together, he gets his revenge on those who wronged him while planning his next big job, unaware that it will be his last.

Cagney delivers one of his signature performances as the tragic Jarrett, whose excessive violent streak and consistent insanity make him an essential classic movie villain. Compared to other figures of the time, Jarrett’s genuine love for his mother, who is murdered while he’s in prison, is a slight redeeming quality, and while it does create some sympathy from audiences, it’s not enough to forgive his lifetime of wickedness and sin. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Jarrett as one of the greatest movie villains of all time in its list of 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains.

White Heat

Release Date
September 2, 1941

Raoul Walsh

James Cagney , Virginia Mayo , Edmond O’Brien


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2 Henry Potter – “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Played by Lionel Barrymore

Mr. Potter looking angrily at someone off-camera in It's a Wonderful Life.
Image via Paramount Pictures

In Frank Capra‘s classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart stars as the wholesome George Bailey, who puts his dreams on hold to help save his family’s business. The venture is at risk of dissolution by the cold-hearted board member Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Potter, who owns the local bank and the majority of the town, is a classic movie villain who also symbolizes the impact greed and cruelty can have on a humble, tight-knit community like Bedford Falls.

Mr. Potter is the worst kind of villain. While Potter doesn’t cause physical harm and mass destruction, he does have the potential to destroy countless lives without a single ounce of remorse. Even though he may not be physically intimidating or have the support of a group of criminals, Potter’s immense power, lack of empathy, and unquenchable greed make him a more than credible classic movie villain.

it's a wonderful life poster

It’s a Wonderful Life

Release Date
January 7, 1947

Frank Capra

James Stewart , Donna Reed , Lionel Barrymore , Thomas Mitchell


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1 Norman Bates – “Psycho” (1960)

Played by Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates staring at the camera and smiling in Psycho
Image via Paramount Pictures

In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror thrillerPsycho, a secretary, Marion (Janet Leigh), steals thousands of dollars from her employer. On the run, she decides to hide out at a remote hotel operated by a quiet young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is controlled by his domineering mother. When Marion is brutally murdered, her sister (Vera Miles) and boyfriend (John Gavin) begin searching for her, and after conducting their investigation, they learn of Marion’s fate as well as the truth about Bates’ elusive mother.

Anthony Perkins incites sheer terror as the shy but sinister Norman Bates, who was also one of the first of his kind to be seen on the big screen, making him the best classic movie villain. Of course, it’s obvious from the start that something is off about Bates, but as the events unfold, audiences are shocked by the Master of Suspense, who meticulously adds a rhyme and reason to every one of Bates’ murderous moves right under their noses.



Release Date
June 22, 1960

Anthony Perkins , Vera Miles , John Gavin , Martin Balsam , John McIntire , Simon Oakland


Joseph Stefano , Robert Bloch

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NEXT: The 10 Best Francis Ford Coppola Villains, Ranked


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