Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dandy Divine in a Lamé: Timothy Carey and The World's Greatest Sinner

Timothy Carey, the name has a certain aura to it.  Some cinephiles know this feeling, those who go out on a limb and watch what little role he has.  Carey, a character actor who zigzagged through the latter half of American cinema’s history, from A to Z pictures and everything in between, had a special talent.  He could make a thin role into something memorable.  He threw his 6’ 4’’ body around and spoke with a voice that sounded more like a cement mixer.  He stole scenes, evaporating the memory of those that came before and after it.
Only Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes managed to integrate Carey into their films seamlessly.  For both filmmakers, he appeared twice in their work.  For Kubrick: The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957).  For Cassavetes: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).  They were able to rein in Carey, controlling his high-strung acting for maximum effect.  In Paths of Glory, in fact, Carey gives a career-performance.  An interlude from the psychotics he often played, as Private Ferol, Carey is a smooth man, someone who would fit in with Jack Kerouac and co., not WWI France.[i]  By film’s end, he becomes unraveled.  Along with Ralph Meeker and Joe Turkel, he’s one of the soldiers court-martialed and executed.  “I don’t want to die,” he repeats, sniveling, whimpering, and crying as he faces the firing squad.

For every friend, Carey had three or four enemies, people who couldn’t tolerate his brand of free-wheeling, combusting improvisation.  Fact and legend often blur in Hollywood history.  In Carey’s case, there seems to be more legend than fact.  His bouts with actors and directors are tabloid-worthy and tailor-made to his outsider persona.  Billy Wilder and James B. Harris fired him.[ii]  Elia Kazan dubbed his guttural lines.[iii]  Richard Widmark and Karl Malden beat him.  Marlon Brando stabbed him with a pen.[iv]  Always cheeky, Carey proclaimed that he was fired more than any other actor in Hollywood.[v] 

In 1962, Timothy Carey released[1] a film as nutty as the characters he played – The World’s Greatest Sinner.  Shot on the cheap (around $100,000) and partially self-financed[vi] [vii], Sinner makes up for all the bit parts Carey played previously and subsequently.  In almost every shot, Sinner is all Carey.  He plays Clarence Hilliard, a bored insurance salesman who becomes a rock icon, a presidential candidate, a dictator, but above all, a superhuman being.  This last one belongs to a cross-eyed, Nietzchean ideology that he promotes.  Now called God Hilliard, he proclaims that everyone is capable of being superhumans, of being their own God.  Of course, Hilliard is the leader of these man-gods.  He advocates eternal youth and bans death.  By film’s end, the power-hungry Hilliard even challenges God.

Sinner is Privilege’s idiot cousin.  It’s hamstrung by flat performances and cheap sets.  The narrative bits collide into each other.  This gives the film an amateur feel.  Couple this with the surprising formal choices Carey makes (cutting before a scene ends, shooting scenes without sound, varying shot angles) and you have an example of naïve art reminiscent of Trent Harris and Crispin Glover’s work.  Unlike the ironic weirdness of Rubin & Ed or the mannered weirdness of What is It? Sinner is sincerely strange. It’s partly audacious and partly buffoonery.

Consider one of Clarence’s first attempts to address the public.  Before his tub-thumping politicking rallies-cum-concerts, Clarence is in the bowels of suburbia. After a few strums of his guitar, he says: “Everybody! Clarence Hilliard is here.”  Framed in a low-angle shot, an etched figure in front of clouds, he continues: “I’m not a preacher, and I’m not drunk, I’m just a politician.  He hears me.”  Clarence shoots out his index finger, pointing to someone off-screen.  Cut to a reverse shot, and we see one lone man walking on the street.  We hear the cries of a dog off in the distance.  “Does anyone else here me around here.  I formed a new party, called the Eternal Man’s party, even if I have to tell it to the dogs and chickens.  Everybody come on up out of your houses, Clarence Hilliard is gonna make you a superhuman being.”  More strumming as he tilts his head up in exhalation.  Cut to one of these lonely houses.  As soon as the door opens, there’s a sharp cut back to Clarence, swinging his body around in the opposite direction, pointing once more.  “There’s the first lady!”  The finger turns first, into a gracious hand, palm facing up, and then extending to the sky – a motion of power. “Lady, I can make you live forever.”
Hands play an important role in the film.  Hands extend out.  Hands ball into fists.  Hands shoot into the air.  Hands splay on the chest in a moment of fake sincerity.  These are the movements and gestures of that rhetorical wizard and mythic creature called God Hilliard.

Within a cut, a smattering of people appear before Clarence as if out of the air.  He gets on top of something to address the growing crowd.  From the back side, we see him gesticulating wildly, hands shooting out this way and that, pointing every which way.  The camera tilts down to reveal what he’s standing on -- a pile of bags with a sign that says: “Fertilizer 4 Bags 1$.”  Of course, Carey sells shit.  In his last project, a surreal play called The Insect Trainer, he’ll sell us farts.

From the toilet to the transcendent, that’s Sinner’s narrative path.  Near the end, God Hilliard challenges God. He pokes holes in “the body of Christ” to see if it bleeds, thereby confirming God’s existence.  Alas, no blood, there’s just a whole-y piece of bread, sending Clarence in a knee-slapping, cackling fit.  Clarence leaves the room and returns to his superhuman being headquarters – a building across his lawn.  A cut back to the wafer corresponds with feint moans heard over the soundtrack.  The camera follows a thick trail of blood across the grass.  The shot is startling, even entrancing, because the trail is so consistent in width, and because the camera hovers so close to it, so quickly.  From here, there’s a backward movement, back to the house, back to the room, and back to the wafer as Clarence runs to the trail’s source.  Opening the door, the black and white image switches to red.  Clarence shrieks and writhes.  This is one of cinema’s supreme miracle moments, up there with Ordet and Viaggio in Italia, and it’s found in the gutter.


[1] Although screened in 1962, Carey would continue to tinker with the film for the rest of his life, re-editing and shooting new material.

[i] Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Key Person: Timothy Carey - Killing a cockroach in Path's of Glory." Defining Moments in Movies: The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events that Made Movie Magic, edited by Chris Fujiwara, (London: Cassell Illustrated, 2007), 274.
[ii] Grover Lewis, “Cracked Actor: Timothy Carey,” Film Comment 40.1 (2004): 61.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Lewis, 59.
[vi] Millie de Chirico, “Behind the Scenes,” TCM.com, Turner Entertainment Networks, INC.
[vii] McAbee.

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