Welcome to the first installment of Reelin’ & Rockin’, a new column about the weirdest and wildest rock ‘n’ roll films in history.
For those who have seen Paths of Glory or The Killing, early entries in the filmography of Stanley Kubrick, have likely noticed the awkward lumbering character actor, Timothy Carey. While many not know the name of the actor, his charismatic presence in those films and others is undeniable. In 1962, Carey took his odd magnetism and put them to use as a writer-director-star of his own magnum opus, The World’s Greatest Sinner, a film about a politics, music, religion, and celebrity; a film for those that think Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd didn’t go far enough.
The film opens with narration by Satan introducing us to a bored insurance salesman, Clarence Hilliard (Carey). He has completely lost interest in his given profession, telling people that they’re better off without it. “Because you when you die your body starts to stink. That’s right. They’ll bury you for nothing,” he kindly informs a potential customer before being fired. Clarence makes the most of his recent unemployment. He tells his wife, Edna (Betty Rowland), his plans to write a book and enter the world of politics. Enlisting the help of his gardener neighbor, Alonzo (Gil Barreto), Clarence takes to preaching on the street and handing out his manifesto as the founder of his new political party, the Eternal Man Party.
The philosophy of Clarence Hilliard is variation of the Nietzschean superman with touches of economic populism. He believes that every individual is their own god. The only world that matters is the world that we are currently a part of. Unlike the Nazis, who used a variation of this concept, Clarence rebuffs his disciples who want their philosophy to scapegoat Catholics or Jews. “Let’s be different. Let’s not hate anybody,” Clarence tells his early followers.
Realizing that his manifestos aren’t enough to captivate the public, Clarence begins to learn the guitar. Soon he’ll be backed by a full rock ‘n’ roll band that will provide the backbeat for Clarence’s demented sermons. As his influence grows exponentially, so does his ego. With all the passion and conviction in Clarence’s frenzied speeches, it is inescapable that Clarence is a fraud. From his glued-on soul patch to his inability to play the guitar, everything about this man is a calculated lie.
No longer content with such a mundane moniker as Clarence, he ditches his Christian name in favor of something much more modest – God Hilliard. He dresses in fine suites with “God” embroidered on its sleeves. His followers hang on his every word, sometimes resulting in destructive riots. Though he doesn’t scapegoat a certain section of the population, Clarence still becomes a megalomaniacal dictator. When a man begins to doubt Clarence’s divinity, his family turns against him and he becomes ostracized. Pleading for forgiveness from Clarence results in a gift – a pistol.
Young and old female followers are seduced by the crazed prophet. God’s loose ways with women, of course, results in marital difficulties. Between his adultery and blasphemy, his wife has reached a breaking point and leaves him. Even though he’s running for president and has thousands of devoted followers, God is now the loneliest man in the world.
The solitude takes a devastating grip on him, he begins to doubt his own philosophy. It all culminates with an odd sequence where Hilliard, doubting his own manic philosophy, tries to disprove the existence God, the deity, by piercing a communion wafer. This results in the wafer bleeding, proving the existence of God and destroying the house of cards Clarence has built.
For a weird, Z-grade movie, The World’s Greatest Sinner is remarkable prescient. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there would be an explosion of God Hilliards out there. The Manson Family, the Move, the SLA, and Jonestown were all political and religious hybrid cults with charismatic leaders that led their followers into horrible ends.
The film’s music was composed and conducted by an (at the time) unknown musician from the L.A. area, Frank Zappa. There’s nothing in the music that is noticeably Zappa-esque, it mostly sounds like countless other swinging soundtracks from no-budget ‘60s films. Zappa briefly promoted the film during his 1963 appearance on the Steve Allen Show. There to show off his talents at playing the bicycle as a musical instrument, Zappa casually calls The World’s Greatest Sinner, “the world’s worst movie.” Zappa would later make the world’s worst movie, the unwatchable dreck known as 200 Motels.
The World’s Greatest Sinner failed to gain any wide distribution. For decades the film was the stuff of legend with rough bootlegs being passed around. That started to change with its initial airing on Turner Classic Movies – you can now purchase the film on iTunes. I first heard about on a list compiled by Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps where they ranked it their favorite film. Carey continued to work as a character actor in TV and films until his death in 1994, though he never completed another film as a director. He did work on directing Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, but the film was never completed and it has been said that the footage is unwatchable. Regardless, Carey has morphed into a full-blown cult movie icon. The Timothy Carey Experience is a regularly updated fan site to the legendary character actor.
As is the case with many no-budget, Z-grade films from the ‘60s, The World’s Greatest Sinner can be rough around the edges. The film does avoid the Z-grade pratfalls of padding the running time with stock footage to hit the 90-minute mark, running a tight 77-minutes. Even though Carey has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in history, his work as a director varies from borderline incompetence to borderline brilliance. Even though the film isn’t the work of a cinema virtuoso, it’s an unusual, brave, and uncompromising work. Like its star, writer, and director, The World’s Greatest Sinner is truly one of a kind.