The World’s Greatest Sinner

Apr 20, 2005 at 12:00 am

It’s hard to imagine someone as authentically bizarre and unique as Timothy Carey making it in Hollywood today. A hulking, awkward actor with hooded eyes, a hangdog expression and an ever-present sense of menace, he had a reputation for being unpredictable, eccentric and highly improvisational. He also had intensity to burn. When he was on-screen you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

Cast in a walk-on role as a biker in The Wild Ones, he grabbed notice by spontaneously spraying beer into Marlon Brando’s face. Soon after, he managed to land roles in films such as Crime Wave, East of Eden and two of Stanley Kubick’s early classics: The Killing and Paths of Glory. His performances almost always stood out as idiosyncratic, crossing the line into the uncomfortably personal. Unlike such oddballs as Crispin Glover or Vincent Gallo, his behavior never seemed affected or self-conscious. One never gets the feeling that Carey is acting.

In 1958 the actor embarked on what may be the ultimate in Hollywood weirdo vanity projects. For three years he labored as the writer, director, editor, producer and star of The World’s Greatest Sinner, a wildly subversive and unabashedly strange parable of demented genius. An unsettling reflection on religion, politics and fascism, it presages the behavior of people like Charles Manson and Jim Jones.

Carey plays bored insurance agent and family man Clarence Hilliard, who quits his job to become a rock ’n’ roll singer and evangelical crusader named God Hilliard. Convulsing and jiving in a gold lamé suit and slicked-back hair, he preaches that all men can become superhuman if only they follow his teachings. Seducing elderly widows to fund his rise to power, Clarence attracts crowds of teenagers and then the notice of political operatives who want him to run for president. He inevitably becomes corrupted by his power and starts promoting fascist ideals while bedding 14-year-old followers. Eventually, his sordid house of cards begins to collapse as his own beliefs erode. In an act of desperation, Clarence challenges God to stop his evil plans by proving divine existence.

The film has a loyal following among cult film devotees, and, given Sinner’s numerous moments of bone-deep weirdness, it’s easy to see why. From its stentorian narration (delivered by a satanic boa constrictor) to a sound track created by then unknown L.A. musician Frank Zappa, the film plays like a surreal adaptation of All the Kings Men.

To say the film is lowbrow would be an understatement. The dialogue borders on incoherent; the editing is haphazard; and members of the supporting cast look as if they’ve been plucked from the nearest flea market. Still, there’s no denying Carey’s charisma. His volcanic conviction is mesmerizing. The sight of Hilliard doing this creepy shimmy dance to the bangs and crashes of Zappa’s surf-punk stew is as compelling as it is disturbing.

True to Carey’s bizarre persona, he fired off a .38 at the movie’s 1962 premiere, scaring the hell out of the gathered crowd. Despite his best efforts, The World’s Greatest Sinner went almost completely unseen, and the actor returned to playing small roles in movies and television. Over the years the film’s negative was lost, and very few prints remain today. If you’re a fan of unusual cinema, you won’t want to miss this crazed work of genius.


Monday, April 25, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].