Wednesday, November 2, 2016


In a time when celebrities regularly run for public office solely on the strength of their name, The World's Greatest Sinner appears to have been quite prescient. Clarence Hilliard,  bored with being an insurance salesman, makes the obvious job switch to spiritual leader. Although an atheist, he renames himself God Hilliard, quickly gaining followers in his movement. Today, they're known as Clinton voters.

Succumbing to temptations of the flesh and otherwise, a mysterious stranger convinces him to run for president. But as Hilliard goes further down the rabbit hole of his own strange creation, he commits a blasphemous act in order to force the real God to make Himself known -- and does He ever.

Before going further, it's important to know that your appreciation of The World's Greatest Sinner depends on your tolerance for technical incompetence, as it makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Days of Heaven. Not a minute goes by when you're not in awe of just how badly made a movie can be.

Every possible flaw that a movie can feature is on full display -- bad sound, sloppy editing, out-of-focus close-ups, obvious dubbing, 5-cent special effects, stiff line-readings... No wonder why the guy who scored The World's Greatest Sinner referred to it as "the world's worst movie" on national TV shortly after its release.

BUT... if you can make it past the first 10 minutes -- an admittedly questionable chore if you were expecting a whiff of professionalism -- Sinner provides the kind of rewards offered only by a movie-maker who careens boldly against the cultural tides of his time, putting on screen his deepest personal beliefs, unashamed of his emotions, daring you to experience what he's feeling every second of the time. The World's Greatest Sinner might not be a good movie, but it's definitely a great one.

Timothy Carey welcomes you into his world.
And its greatness is due to star/writer/director/
producer Timothy Carey. Something like the Christopher Walken of his day, Carey was the ultimate idiosyncratic actor. But whereas Walken pulls you in with his quiet, not-of-this-earth delivery, Carey not only wears his emotions on his sleeve, he throws them at you with the force of Nolan Ryan and a deep, rumbling voice that forces you to pay attention, if only because you're afraid what will happen if you don't.

Without his -- and there's no other word for it -- genius, Sinner would be unwatchable. For Carey revealed the power that pop culture had over the masses that few movie-makers did at the time, and transferred it to his character, in a bold, wild fashion unknown in studio movies. 

Shake, rattle and what the hell?
Hilliard, witnessing the mania that a garage band has over its audience, finally finds his ticket to the big time. He hires his own musicians, dons a gold lame suit, and goes on tour. To watch Carey awkwardly shuffling across the stage before dropping to his knees in front of a frenzied audience and screaming "Please, please, please, please, please take my hand!", and writhing onstage like a worm after a dose of meth, is an utterly mesmerizing, bizarre 16-mm fever dream. 

It's also proof positive that Carey possessed more courage in this one scene than most of today's actors achieve in their entire careers. When you think back to the accolades heaped upon Johnny Depp for wearing eyeliner to play a pirate, it's quite sad how easily impressed moviegoers and critics have become.

Next stop: Fox News commentator.
As Hilliard's followers celebrate their own super-beingness by rioting in the streets, he's sweet-talked into entering politics by a proto-Karl Rove-like campaign manager who is ultimately unmasked as Satan. 

This anticipates by two years the California GOP honchos who convinced Ronald Reagan to run for Governor after watching the sway he held over his audience when delivering a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. And no, I'm not saying they were Satan in disguise. Karl Rove, however, is another matter.

Sinner premiere: Carey addresses
the crowd while Zappa waits for
a check that will never arrive.
There's no point in listing anyone other than Timothy Carey in the cast of Sinner; you haven't heard of them. You would, however, recognize the narrator, Paul Frees, who might as well have "Ubiquitous Voiceover Artist" as his middle name. Look at his CV on Wikipedia -- if you lived between 1950 and 1986, trust me, you know him.

Then there's the aforementioned composer of Sinner's score, 21 year-old Frank Zappa. Zappa's trademark atonal music -- and his love for zany xylophones -- are unmistakable. His later unkind words about the movie might come down to not being paid for his work. A thing like that can cloud a guy's opinion.

How can you resist?
But The World's Greatest Sinner belongs to
the incomparable Timothy Carey. A favorite of young, scrappy directors, Carey found success in two early Stanley Kubrick movies, The Killing and, especially, Paths of Glory, where he steals every scene he shares with star Kirk Douglas. Always picky about his work, he turned down roles in the first two Godfather movies, continuing his lifetime choice of concentrating on more personal projects. 

And none were more personal than The World's Greatest Sinner, a movie widely condemned in its day  -- that is, when it wasn't ignored -- but, like Timothy Carey himself, is now rightly considered a legend. 

Even the Beatles were Carey admirers. An alternate cover shot of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reveals his profile to the right of Ringo. 

Carey's photo is a still from The Killing, where he's aiming a rifle. If you follow what would have been the trajectory of its bullet, it leads straight to John Lennon. 

Even his photo was prescient.



The trailer for The World's Greatest Sinner. Let me know what you think.

And just for the heck of it, here's young "musical bicyclist" Frank Zappa on The Steve Allen Show. Imagine what audiences in 1963 thought of it. (Frank enters around the 40-second mark. He talks about the scoring of The World's Greatest Sinner at 2:50.)


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