God Said Ha
The Incredibly Strange Creature Who Became The World's Greatest Sinner
If movie stardom is measured in presence, Timothy Carey was a movie star. By any conventional standard (and most of the unconventional ones), he was anything but--a hulking, ungainly figure with dark, hooded eyes, a muttering, slithering voice, and a countenance by turns hangdog, menacing, and creepy, sometimes all at once. But when he was on screen, you couldn't take your eyes off him.
Emerging in Hollywood in the early '50s, the age of the Method, Carey's method was madness. He was outlandish, improvisational, and legendarily unpredictable. Cast as an anonymous biker in 1954's The Wild One, he contributed a near-psychotic cameo, spraying an unscripted beer in star Marlon Brando's face. (Brando returned the favor by stabbing Carey with a pen while directing him in 1961's One-Eyed Jacks.) His bizarre turn in 1955's East of Eden prompted director Elia Kazan to attack him on the set. "Timothy Carey just couldn't do the same thing twice, either deliberately or unconsciously," said Stanley Kubrick, for whom Carey delivered relatively restrained but still powerfully idiosyncratic performances in The Killing and Paths of Glory.
What made Carey's act so compelling is that it didn't seem like an act. Unlike the strenuous, self-conscious eccentricity of, say, Crispin Glover, or the designated freak in the latest David Lynch, Carey's strangeness seemed intrinsic, spontaneous, the product of a genuinely off-kilter imagination. It's little wonder that the only movie in which he played the lead is also the only one he wrote and directed.
But The World's Greatest Sinner, featured at this week's Maryland Film Festival, is more than just an opportunity to bask in Carey's special twisted glow. A three-year labor of . . . love? . . . completed in 1962, barely released then and rarely shown since, Sinner is a work of demented genius, DIY crudity crossed with unfettered ambition to produce a film so audaciously subversive and bone-deep weird it's almost intoxicating, All the King's Men as re-imagined by Jerry Lee Lewis and Edward D. Wood Jr.
Sinner starts with the devil in the form of a snake and ends with the Almighty in the form of a communion wafer. In between is the story of Clarence Hilliard (Carey), a mild-mannered insurance agent who has a revelation: There is no god but man, and every man is a god--a "superhuman being" whose birthright is eternal life. He rechristens himself "God Hilliard" and sets out to spread his gospel, progressing from street-corner speechifying to rock stardom (inspired by watching a swivel-hipped guitar-slinger whip a crowd into a lather) to the verge of the presidency. Along the way he causes riots and suicides, abandons his family, sleeps with an elderly woman and a 14-year-old girl, wears a suit with god emblazoned on the cuffs, and, in a crisis of anti-faith, steals the host from a church and stabs it repeatedly with a needle.
Mere plot summary does the film faint justice. The World's Greatest Sinner is not well made by any conventional standard (or most of the unconventional ones). At times, it's barely coherent. The editing is, uh, haphazard; the cast appears to have been recruited down at the docks for a 10-spot or a few beers. But Sinner transcends so-bad-it's-good rubbernecking by dint of its unlikely auteur's fierce conviction and demonic, what-the-fuck presence. Whatever Carey's doing here, he means it, even when precisely what he means (crypto-religious parable? anti-fascist tract? insane fever dream?) isn't remotely scrutable. Part of the thrill of watching it lies in the very idea that someone with so much as a toe in the late-'50s/ early-'60s Hollywood mainstream thought the thing up, let alone got it made.
But most of the thrill is in seeing Carey do his thing, whether thundering fire and brimstone, turning his reptilian charms on female disciples, or plotting darkly with his followers in starkly expressionistic shadow. (Over the course of those three years he spent making Sinner, Carey seems to have more or less figured out what do with the lights and cameras.) There is no sight in cinema to compare to Carey, a fat Elvis before the real thing ballooned, in full rock 'n' roll flower, shimmying and jiggling across the stage to cacophonous rockabilly skronk before dropping to his knees and bellowing "Please! Please! Please! Please! Please! Take . . . my . . . hand!" and collapsing in a writhing heap. It's an indelible tableau, the Odessa steps of grade-Z psychotronica.
(For the score, Carey hired an unknown L.A. musician named Frank Zappa, who showed his gratitude by going on Steve Allen's TV show and proclaiming Sinner "the world's worst movie." Carey also helped kick off the career of cult/fringe/trash maven Ray Dennis Steckler, a cameraperson here who applied the lessons he learned to his own exercise in visionary incompetence, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.)
Ever the conceptualist, Carey reportedly set the mood for Sinner's premiere by firing a .38 over the crowd. The movie was not a hit. In fact, it went almost completely unseen, which probably accounts for Carey's continued presence in film and television for the next 20-odd years. (One person who did see it, the iconoclastic indie filmmaker John Cassevetes, compared Carey to Sergei Eisenstein and cast him in two of his '70s films, Minnie and Moskowitz and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.) The movie's negative was lost, only a handful of prints are known to exist, and, despite renewed interest in Carey since his death in 1994, it is nearly impossible to find on video. Do not miss this opportunity to see a lost treasure of some kind or other. Attention must be paid.