My favourite villains: part one

by SJ Griffin

I am on a quest to find the best villains. I like villains. I like the female villains, particularly. Male villains are less interesting somehow. Unless they have some feminine wiles, then they are fascinating. This post includes comment that will totally spoil a number of great works so, if I were you, I would skim the headings and only read on if you know what I’m talking about. Otherwise I will be upset on your behalf. These are the first eight I thought of, not in any particular order. That will come later.

Sylvia Teitjens, Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford

Confession: I haven’t read any of the Ford Maddox Ford books, I’ve only seen the first episode of Parade’s End on iplayer (I don’t have a television). And yet already Sylvia Teitjens rockets her way on to my top eight villains list. I fully expect her to turn out to be not such a terrible item in the end but for now, wow. Her reaction to Potty’s threat to kill himself is so glacial it’s almost comical. In that way that you laugh at something because it defies you to have any other reaction. She lies constantly about what she thinks, how she feels and it is, I think, a testament to FMF’s writing and characterisation that you know she’s being  profoundly dishonest and that while appearing to enjoy it, she hates it. She also randomly throws objects and I think a tendency towards tantrums is a marvellous characteristic in a villain.

Mille Crocker-Harris, The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan

The Browning Version is a great play, and Millie Crocker-Harris is such a great character that in the end I almost feel sorry for her but can’t quite. She has not one single redeeming feature, they have all been bleached out of her by the sheer disappointment of her life. When I first saw it I thought she was going to murder Crocker-Harris. That’s how evil is she. Her finest moment is breathtaking. Taplow, a student that her husband is tutoring gives him an inscribed version of Robert Browning’s translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon as a farewell gift, which Crocker-Harris is moved by. Greatly moved by. Then Millie deflates this utterly, like she’s stabbing her stiletto heel through his heart, saying that Taplow only gave it to him so he would get a good grade. Rattigan sets this possibly up right from the start so the layering suggests that Millie may be right and still that doesn’t make it any less…well, evil.  And yet, there is it again, that ambiguity. You know why she’s the way she is, she knows why and that knowledge seeds a little sympathy somewhere and at the same time as making every action even more unforgivable, it makes you want to forgive them.

Catwoman, DC Comics and other media

Speaking of ambiguity, Catwoman. Is she a villain? She is sometimes. If she could only get over her thing for men in bat costumes she’d be unstoppable. Catwoman exists in the DC Universe and so has been rebooted more times that a ZX Spectrum Sinclair. Jewel thief, burglar, prostitute – the woman has more origins that the cat has lives. She is always more than the sum total of parts surrounding her, more sinned against than sinning but they don’t come any cooler.  The best Catwoman is hard to pick. I have a soft spot for the Tim Burton/Michelle Pfeiffer incarnation, but that may be because it’s one of the easiest to pin down, and one of the least objectified by a solely male gaze.

The Quiz, The Painting That Ate Paris, Doom Patrol

The Brotherhood of Dada would say they are anarchic rogues, but they are enemies of Doom Patrol and therefore, to my mind, villains. Quiz is a member of the first Brotherhood along with Mr Nobody, Frenzy, Sleepwalk and the Fog. She is a Japanese woman with an overwhelming fear of dirt. She wears a hazmat suit covered in question marks. She has every super power you’ve never thought of.  So, if when you encounter her you’re not going ‘invisibility, pyromancy, super strength, fists of ice, magnetism’ then she has all those powers. I could only think of five then and my mind went blank. Even I’m not convinced by fist of ice. Awesome power combined with unmanaged OCD makes for my favourite villain I think. Just for the sheer joyful invention of it.

Cruella de Vil, 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

“Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil. If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will…”

The original 1961 Disney version of this film is still one of my favourites. Cruella de Vil, voiced by Betty Lou Gerson, was the villain of my childhood. I loved her. She wasn’t scary somehow because she was only out to get puppies, but she was a wrong ‘un. One of those unstoppable women, driven by ambition and desire, unfettered by convention. In this film Disney ditched her cat and her husband, the cool detachment she has in the book is replaced by a rabid, crazed mania. The bit where she loses her temper and the car becomes an extension of her snarling, drooling anger is awesome. I much prefer her to Anita. She’s boring.

Random fact: in some countries her names is changed because the play on devil doesn’t make sense In Italy, for example, she is Crudelia De Mon, cruel demon.

Maud Lily, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I remember when I read Sarah Water’s Fingersmith for the first time. I got to the end of the first part where the narrator changes from Sue to Maud and I threw the book across the room I was so angry with Maud.  I know I warned you there’d be spoiler but this was such a great moment in the developing relationship between reader and book that I’m not going to say any more about it. Read it if you haven’t. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. And then when you get to the end…well.

Elle Driver, Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2, Quentin Tarantino

Aka Daryl Hannah’s comeback, aka  California Montain Snake, member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. She hates the Bride with a mighty vengeance, all because of a man. Bill. She killed her own master, Pai Mei. OK, he plucked her eye out leaving her half blind with an eye patch, but killing your own master, that’s bold, that’s bad. Then she kills Budd and frames the Bride for it. But my favourite bit is when the Bride finds out, in the final fight, that it was Elle who killed Pai Mei and plucks Elle’s other eye out. Elle does not break, she does not cry. No, she is as mad as all hell. Another classy tantrum tosser.  Also, rocks a nurse’s uniform.