I have known my friend Geoff for something like forty years. We met at school, were roommates in New York for a while and corresponded when we lived in different cities. Now he lives nearby and comes over every couple of weeks to show me movies. Geoff is a serious film buff whose tastes run to obscure noir and horror, and I believe he sees it as his mission to fill in the gaps in my education. The last film he brought over, The World’s Greatest Sinner, is so obscure it never had a theatrical release, even though it stars and was written and directed by one of my favorite actors, Timothy Carey. A tall, memorably sinister John Turturro type, Carey was usually cast as a secondary thug in obscure crime pictures, but he had small parts in East Of Eden and The Wild One, and larger ones in a couple of classic Stanley Kubrick pictures, The Killing and Paths Of Glory (probably his best performance- one of Carey’s persistent mannerisms was grinding his teeth like a bad Kirk Douglas imitator, but in this one he lays off, possibly because Kirk himself is the star). His distinctive mug almost makes caricature redundant, but here goes:
In a weird Kevin Bacon game coincidence, my sister Anny was in his last film Echo Park, appearing very briefly applying makeup to an actor in a film shoot scene not involving Carey. She doesn’t remember meeting him.
The World’s Greatest Sinner has its admirers, including Martin Scorsese, who once picked it for inclusion in a Rock and Roll film festival- and its cool factor is bolstered by the presence of a young Frank Zappa as composer- but at the risk of annoying TWGS cultists, I have to report it’s the kind of film that I can only enjoy as a goof. It was shot intermittently between 1958 and 1962, whenever Carey wasn’t otherwise employed and could get a crew together. He plays an insurance salesman who drops out of the rat race to become a guitar-strumming faith healer and then a Presidential candidate running on a platform of abolishing death and making every man a ”SUPER HUMAN BEING”. At the climax a power-crazed Carey challenges God himself by poking holes in a communion wafer with a needle- he seems to suffer for this, though it’s difficult to tell as he wears a suffering expression throughout. In any case, in this up-to-now black and white movie, the screen goes blood red.
Playing the lead for the first and only time, Carey doesn’t modulate his customary air of teeth-clenching menace one bit, but he’s catnip to the ladies anyway. It’s a basic rule that every character actor starring in a vanity production has to seduce every woman in sight, and Carey follows the pattern- his conquests even include a sixtysomething grandmother.The musical numbers are particularly jarring. Prancing around to early-Zappa dissonnance, Carey doesn’t wiggle his hips like Elvis, but instead wows the crowd by shaking his beer gut. This YouTube clip should say all.
As a historical note, the movies have been spinning stories about guitar-slinging messiahs using their fame to launch into politics ever since Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd, but here in the real world the closest we’ve come has been Sonny Bono. Meanwhile, the political stage has made room for cowboy actors, bodybuilders, pro wrestlers, a TV sportscaster and, just maybe, an SNL comic.