You want some blasphemy? Don't bother with that certain fantasy movie with that skinny lacquered redhead in it. Despite all the public outcry over that particular blockbuster's pro-Reformation message (isn't it risky for our cinema to endorse the policies of the heretic Martin Luther?), the Compass movie really doesn't give God much trouble for your entertainment buck. By contrast, The World's Greatest Sinner, a backyard-shot indie has a real beef with the Almighty. (Don't worry, kids, the Rock of Ages is tough enough to handle it!) As director, writer, producer, chief cook and bottle washer, eccentric character actor Timothy Carey shows the instincts of a French decadent. His Clarence Hilliard is a Southland Baudelaire who rails against the existence of God, and sets himself up as a false messiah. The hand-rubbed Letraset titles in the graphic above indicate the budget level of this berserk film. Much of it takes place in an early 1960s San Gabriel Valley a.k.a "The Inland Empire," so innocent and blue-horizoned that David Lynch would have refused to believe it.
Hilliard is an insurance salesman with a ranch house, a loving wife, three kids and a horse. King the horsey gets some fine closeups and on-camera nuzzling. Carey correctly supposed that the audience would make some leeway in their hearts for a sinner who loved his pony. One boring day at work, Hilliard has a moment of clarity; people buy insurance as a denial of their mortality. Their fear of death is all that keeps them alive. So he lets all his salesmen have the day off, and is promptly fired by his boss.
Satan, in the form of a talking snake--voiced by the King of Narrators, Paul Frees--could have predicted it all. Hilliard is his greatest sales-prospect since Adam. Hilliard decides to start a new religion, with himself as messiah. His first convert is Alsono the gardener (Gil Baretto), and then he secures further financing by seducing a wealthy old lady. The newly-renamed "God" Hilliard gets a Tijuana souvenir guitar and lets his hair loose like Jerry Lee Lewis.
After an on-stage performance at a seaside nightclub, in a gold lame suit and fake goatee, "God" triggers a dangerous car-smashing riot by the sailors and teenagers. Apparently the organizer of this sequence was Long Beach's own Ray Dennis Steckler (Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies). Incidentally, the one and only Dave Kehr also claims that Edgar G. Ulmer was also one of the hands on The World's Greatest Sinner, which was filmed over the course of several years.
"God''s followers are so many that they have to wear special "F" (for follower) armbands. Reporters investigate this self-declared messiah, touching on the historical presidents of Father Divine and Sweet Daddy Grace. Those disciples who fail Hilliard's schemes are given a pistol and ordered to do the honorable thing. ("SUICIDE OVER SELF-STYLED GOD" trumpets the headlines.) Hilliard becomes so popular that he's tapped to run for president for the new Eternal Man's Party...though his apparent atheism is a handicap.
This folk-art film has the same cousinly relationship to Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd as the similar folk-art masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space has to The Day The Earth Stood Still. The drawling, heavy-lidded, physically squidgy Carey --a cross between Dwight Frye and Lenny Bruce-- was unique as an actor as he was a director. Here is irreplaceable LA backwater mise-en-scene, and amateur actors who give performances you couldn't buy for real money.
And this film has one real technical triumph: a genuinely fine soundtrack by Carey's fellow tormented Catholic, Mr. Francis Xavier Zappa. Zappa was in his early 20s when he wrote this score. The orchestration is so top-drawer that it's clear in a parallel universe, Zappa could have become a celebrated soundtrack composer. Most who see WGS justly remember the catchy rock and roll theme: "He's the world's greatest sinner! As a sinner, he's a winner!". Zappa's love of Varese style dissonance helps give this film mood and stature.
A Zappa fan site has a fine account of Carey's many monkeyshines. In a film industry where the average actor watched their etiquette or didn't work, Carey's impromptu beer-tossing and ad-libbed dialog got him physically attacked by his co-stars. Stanley Kubrick loved Carey like the Coen Brothers love John Turturro -- Turturro is really Carey's only successor. Some of Carey's finest moments as an actor are in Kubrick's Paths of Glory and The Killing.
Before his death in 1994, Carey entertained Crispin Glover-worthy ideas for performances. One included a proposed film to be watched once. The only existing print would be shredded during exhibition, with mangled celluloid souvenirs to be handed out to the audience. In the Church of the Fart Joke, Carey would have been God. Carey sought to make a stage play about Le Petomane, the turn of the century French cabaret "fartiste" who could play "La Marseillaise" with his own unique instrument.
Fortunately, a trio of film scholars, including the San Fernando Valley's Johnny Legend interviewed Carey before he left us. Here's numerous other interviews with Carey. I'm happy to hear that Carey's son Romeo is doing his part to keep his father's memory green. Certainly, if we can take anything away from The World's Greatest Sinner it's that family is everything. Hilliard's long-suffering wife and kids leaves him after too much blasphemy. After one final and (to anyone but us Catholics) ridiculous act of God denial, "God" Hilliard is shown the error of his ways. Except for Carey's copious adulterous kissing scenes --female guest stars in this movie needed to be warned, they were going to be kissed and kissed hard!-- there's nothing in The World's Greatest Sinner to which an enlightened priest could object.
In fact, His Truth Is Marching On by the end of the film. Watching this film's shocking red-tinted finale was one of those indescribably happy moments where environment and film synced up. Right as Hilliard paid the price for his God-mocking, there was a boom of thunder outside of my window. We never get those kinds of storms in my part of Northern California. Could it be...?