Let's Not Hate Anyone Timothy Carey and the World's Greatest Sinner By Marisa Young. To the casual observer, Timothy Carey was one of filmdom’s most unusual character actors. He certainly was, but he was so much more...
To the casual observer, Timothy Carey was one of filmdom’s most unusual character actors. He certainly was, but he was so much more. He was a force of nature. Notoriously challenging to work with, Carey did things his way and more than once butted heads with studio officials in Hollywood. In films like Crime Wave (1954), Finger Man (1955), East of Eden (1955), and Bayou (1957), his hulking 6’5" frame, heavy features and rumbling voice demanded that you pay attention to him.
Stanley Kubrick did pay attention, and gave him his big breaks in The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). The characters he portrayed in these films – a sharpshooting racehorse assassin and an innocent scapegoated WWI soldier, respectively – were at opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but Carey was able to hone in on what made them both human. This was probably his greatest strength as an actor.
For Carey, the prestige of Paths of Glory was followed by the low-budget "cautionary tale" Unwed Mother (1958). His one scene, as a terse, sweaty, disheveled abortionist who looks like he just stumbled in from an all-night bender, is the highlight of an otherwise forgettable film.
By this point in his life, Carey had settled down in El Monte, California, with his new bride Doris (they met in Germany during the filming of Paths), and they began raising a family. Carey was well acquainted with Hollywood’s fascination with producing "provocative" and "controversial" films. He was of the opinion that most films which were promoted as controversial, such as Unwed Mother ("20,000 anguished girls wrote its blistering story!"), were, in reality, fairly anemic. In the late 1950s, huge cultural shifts were beginning to rumble. Carey could sense big changes in the air. He longed to shake things up, to make a film that was truly controversial. He began work on a script which he titled Frenzy.
Frenzy tells the tale of Clarence Hilliard, an insurance salesman leading a comfortable middle-class existence in a small town with his wife and children, a horse, and a Mexican gardener. A nagging dissatisfaction with his lot in life leads him to seek another, grander purpose for being. After stumbling upon a wild rock ‘n’ roll show in town and seeing its hypnotic, frenzied effect on the audience, Clarence quits his insurance job, picks up a guitar, and begins to sing and preach a Nietzschean "every man is a god" philosophy on street corners. He starts to gain followers, including a kindly old lady he seduces for her money. He completely transforms his appearance from bland gray-flannel-suit-wearing salesman to fake-goateed, oil-slick-haired, gold-lamé-suited rock ‘n’ roll messiah. He even changes his first name to "God."
Frenzy was taking definite shape in Carey’s mind as a filmable story, and he set about making it happen. He would finance it with (mostly) his own money, film it in his own neighborhood, produce it himself, cast it himself, direct it himself, and star in it himself. He even converted the family garage into a production studio. One of the most truly independent and outrageous films ever conceived was at last on the slow, painful journey to being born.
Shooting began in 1959 in El Monte and Long Beach. Carey hired Ron McManis as main cameraman. McManis asked Carey to consider hiring his old Army buddy from Pennsylvania, future cult director Ray Dennis Steckler (The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, 1964), as his assistant. Carey agreed and paid for Steckler to come to Los Angeles, and then put him up at the El Monte studio. McManis walked off the set while shooting Hilliard’s mother’s funeral scene and Steckler took over.
"[H]e met me in New York, then gave me a call and asked if I’d like to shoot a film for him," Steckler recounted. "I laughed (because I had just seen his movie [Paths of Glory]) and said, ‘Well, you’re too big for me to talk back to.’ I mean, he was a monster. I said, ‘What if you don’t like what I say – you’ll crush me like that cockroach.’ He said, ‘You’re right!’
"So I went to Long Beach to shoot this movie with 200 extras smashing up the Coliseum; it was wild, and we did some crazy things... Tim and I got along real well because I was a rebel and he liked that."
Frenzy continued its turbulent journey to the screen over the next several years. From what he had shot and edited, Carey put together a presentation piece approximately an hour long. He began showing it to people he knew in Hollywood who might be able to help him complete and distribute the film.
It was becoming apparent that the film was taking on a life of its own, becoming a meditation on power, corruption, religion and hubris. The original title no longer seemed to fit what the story was evolving into. Carey retitled the film The World’s Greatest Sinner.
An emissary of Satan – perhaps even Satan himself – was now urging Hilliard to abandon rock ‘n’ roll completely and concentrate on gaining political power. As the Eternal Man Party candidate for president, Hilliard would whip the crowds into a frenzy of a different kind as he preached his vision of a fascist utopia. He would even challenge God Himself.
Financing for Sinner was a troublesome concern. In addition to the money he earned acting in films and on television, Carey had received $25,000 in sponsorship money from M.A. Ripps, the producer of Bayou. Ripps had recently purchased that film back from United Artists, re-cut it, added some sexually suggestive and violent elements, and re-released it to the adults-only Southern drive-in crowd as Poor White Trash. It made a fortune, but Carey got no more money from Ripps.
The making of Sinner took its toll on Carey. He had so intensely immersed himself in the power-mad insanity of his lead character that it was affecting his off-screen behavior as well. His friend and former roommate Gil Barreto, who played Alonzo, the Mexican gardener, confirms this. "At first, I only had a few lines, but Tim was so nasty to the bit players that they started quitting the picture. As they disappeared, Tim kept giving me their lines, until I had a big supporting role. Tim became God Hilliard, and we really had God in person on the set. It was very difficult to be with Tim at times."
In the midst of all the turmoil, a new and completely unexpected real-life role for Carey emerged. "I have always had a unique connection with my father, a bond that began with my very first breath," writes Carey’s son, Romeo, in Dead Flowers. "The spring of 1961 would be a trying year for my family. My father was in the throes of making his first feature film, The World’s Greatest Sinner, and my mother would give birth to twins: Romeo and Silvana. And as fate would have it, with little warning, my mother’s water broke; soon she was in full labor and unable to move. While waiting for the arrival of an ambulance, my head began to crown. Under duress, my father was cast in the role of the stork and delivered me into the world. Silvana would be born an hour later in a local hospital."
After years of shooting, editing and re-editing (the original cut was nearly four hours long), and approximately $100,000 spent, The World’s Greatest Sinner was finally ready to be unleashed upon the world. In 1963, it had its official premiere at the Vista-Continental Theater in Hollywood. Carey whipped up the crowd by firing a .38 revolver over their heads, and a riot ensued. This, coupled with the film’s truly controversial content that was deemed sacrilegious by some, killed any prospects of Sinner receiving support from the Hollywood establishment. Disappointed but undaunted, Carey took on the additional roles of publicist and distributor, screening the film himself at theaters and colleges over the years. He was even known to sell tickets and show patrons to their seats. Truly independent, hands-on filmmaking!
As much as I love and admire it, The World’s Greatest Sinner is a difficult film for me to write about. It is raw, crude and explosive. It is radical not only in content but in form as well, with crazy jump cuts, unexpected uses of color, and several shots edited in upside down. It explores some vital, often dark themes – political corruption, humanity’s relationship to the divine, the soul-crushing drudgery inherent in the 9-to-5 rat race, mass hypnotism and the herd mentality. I wonder, though, if these themes have a tendency to be obscured by the film’s overall in-your-face madness. It is hailed today in some quarters as the first "punk rock" film, and I would agree, but it’s so much more than sex, (no drugs) and rock ‘n’ roll. At times it strikes me as resembling one of those lurid Jack Chick religious tracts come to life.
Steckler described it as "not a great a movie by any means. Timothy Carey had some great ideas but he lacked technique; he didn’t know how to put them together." Carey closely oversaw the original editing by Carl Mahakian and Lee Strosnider, but re-edited the film himself many times over the years. I can’t help thinking that some tighter editing might have improved the film, but it still stands as a testament to Carey’s original vision.
The use of music in the film is wonderful. The score by twenty-one year old Frank Zappa – his first big professional gig – is fabulous. Zappa also contributed the film’s title tune, a catchy R&B-tinged rocker that declares, "As a sinner he’s a winner! He’s rotten to the core!" God Hilliard’s first big concert with his saxophone-heavy band is a wonder to behold. In his gold lamé Elvis suit he wields his guitar like a weapon (it would be a mistake to say he actually plays it), drops to his knees and shouts, "Please! Please! Please! Take my hand!" The band blasts away behind him, sounding, as Los Angeles music scene legend Art Fein describes it, "sour and atonal" and "like the worst nightmare The Cramps ever had." Carey does his crazy Cajun Bayou dance, drops to the floor in a fit of rock ‘n’ roll apoplexy that presages Iggy Pop, and eventually dives off the stage into a sea of future disciples (did Carey invent the mosh pit?).
But, as I mentioned, there is some dark stuff here. Hilliard’s initial street-corner evangelizing appears to have a positive message: Stop relying on some distant, impersonal God in the sky to give your life meaning; recognize the divinity within yourself. "Let’s be different," he pleads. "Let’s not hate anyone." These are admirable sentiments. But if every man is a god, then it follows that there is no God, so Hilliard appropriates the title for himself. As his followers begin to worship him, the madness grows. He indulges his every lust: for women, for power, for money, for fame. He abuses and rejects his loving family. He sees himself as exalted far above the "masses." He forces a disillusioned follower to commit suicide. He becomes, simply, a horrible person.
Another actor might have had difficulty finding even the tiniest shred of something salvageable in "God" Hilliard. But Carey draws on his innate ability to bring humanity to the lowest of the low. The physical and emotional intensity he invests in the character is often painful to watch. When Hilliard wails inconsolably over the coffin of his recently deceased mother, the scene is made even more heartbreaking by the knowledge that Carey’s mother, Ida, passed away during filming.
Hilliard’s emotional state is so fragile that the death of his mother causes him to question everything. He challenges God to the ultimate showdown in one of the most audacious sequences ever filmed. The outcome of this conflict is still hotly debated by fans of the film. Does "God" win, or does God win? Or, perhaps, does Satan win? I know what I think. See the film and make the call yourself. And prepare to be dazzled by Timothy Carey, the holy fool with the heart of a poet and the vision of a prophet.
The World’s Greatest Sinner is available on DVD at www.absolutefilms.net and also can be purchased on iTunes.
- Carey, Romeo. "Making Sinner, A Work-In-Progress". Dead Flowers (Participant Press, 2011)
- Carey, Timothy. Interview by Michael Murphy and Johnny Legend; research by Michael J. Weldon. Psychotronic Video magazine #6 (Summer 1990)
- Chartrand, Harvey. "Timothy Carey: The World’s Greatest Director!"; Filmfax Plus magazine #102 (April/June 2004)
- Fein, Art. "The World’s Greatest Sinner". Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies by Marshall Crenshaw (Agincourt Press, 1994)
- Steckler, Ray Dennis. Interview by Boyd Rice. Incredibly Strange Films (V/Search, 1986)
- Photos from Sinner from Dead Flowers (Participant Press, 2011), with permission of the Timothy Carey Estate. Many thanks to Romeo Carey for assistance in finalizing this piece.
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