Friday, November 28, 2008

Movie: The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)

So we have Timothy Carey, an actor who may have been unmatched at conjuring up a sense of genuine menace, a wild man onscreen and off, a favorite of directors like John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick. For me, Carey will always be the malignant scarecrow who rifles down a racehorse in The Killing.

Carey grew tired of playing supporting parts, so he decided to engineer his own breakthrough. The World’s Greatest Sinner is entirely his; he wrote, produced, financed and directed. (Sensibly, he hired Frank Zappa to do the music.) Ultimately he had to distribute it as well; Sinner never had a formal theatrical release. In some sense it’s the definitive underground movie, spoken of more than seen. I was stunned to learn that TCM would be premiering Sinner on TV last month. I would be out of town on the day, but it is for such occasions that the DVR was invented.

Carey, looking like a cross between Nicolas Cage and Keith Olbermann with a pinch of Michael Madsen for flavor, plays an insurance salesman who quits his job to start a cult. He changes his name to God, and you know he means business because he has it embroidered onto his sleeves. He incorporates music into the pitch, although his act consists mainly of doing flaccid belly rolls in a lamé suit. The next step, obviously, is to declare himself a candidate for president. He actually has a shot at winning, because in the days before the “gotcha!” media no one discovers that he’s screwing underage girls. The film culminates with a jawdropper of an ending that manages to:

1. Completely misinterpret the fundamental Catholic precept of transubstantiation;

2. Undermine the entire concept of religious faith;

3. Switch from black and white to color a few seconds too late.

Is that everything? Oh, yeah, it’s all narrated by the devil. Did I say that? I probably should have said that.

Sinner looks lousy; don’t tell me the jump cuts and choppy editing are artistic choices, because I simply will not believe you. Carey never explains his character’s philosophy, offering up guff about how we can all be “super human beings” over and over. He pushes every conceivable button purely for the sake of button-pushing.

And that wildness is why the movie is worth watching. It’s a ferocious cry, a discharge of pent-up frustration, the full-throated scream of a salesman stifled by his work ... or a character actor suffocated by the scope of his roles. It reminded me of a Charles Willeford piece about how every man has to make his sound. Rosemarie, better read than me, quoted Shakespeare:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

I watched Sinner on Wednesday night, thinking it might be my annual Thanksgiving movie turkey. No dice. The World’s Greatest Sinner may be a bad movie. But it’s a hell of a lot more than a turkey.

Besides, the last fucking thing I need is the ghost of Timothy Agoglia Carey haunting me.