Now for something completely different: Timothy Carey as God

Jim Lundstrom

Timothy Carey doing a very bad Elvis imitation in his 1962 film The World's Greatest Sinner, which features the music of 21-year-old Frank Zappa.

Timothy Carey was the supreme weirdo. There’s his creepy portrayal of the horse assassin in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, possibly the first time in movie history where the character spoke all his lines through clenched teeth.

And so many big teeth in that long, potato-shaped head. His droopy eyes give the impression that he’s almost too stoned to keep them open. One writer once referred to Carey as the world’s ugliest character actor.

Add to that a baritone voice that always sounds intoxicated with a heady mixture of booze and drugs, and you have a menacing oddity the likes of which haven’t been seen since Peter Lorre.

I first took note of Timothy Carey when I saw The Wild Ones (1953). He played a member of a rival gang, opposite star Marlon Brando. To the consternation of fellow actors and his directors, Carey liked to improvise. In The Wild Ones he decided to improvise in a scene with Brando by spraying him with a beer.
Eight years later, when Brando hired Carey for a role in his western One-Eyed Jacks, he asked Carey not to spray him with beer again in another moment of personal inspiration.

I’m sure I next took note of him in two Kubrick movies – the aforementioned The Killing from 1956, and Paths of Glory in ‘57, which was his last movie with Kubrick. He was fired before the film was finished after staging his own kidnapping. Producer James B. Harris told the story in a 2015 Film Comment interview:

“I got a call at six in the morning from the Munich police, saying Tim had been found abandoned on the highway, bound hand and foot, claiming he’d been kidnapped.  They thought production was responsible, looking for publicity, that it was a staged act. I said I knew nothing about it, but we needed him to work—they were holding him down at the police station. I told them that Tim was making up this story because he wanted the publicity, not us. So they said they would accommodate us by bringing him to the film studio – they were gonna interview him there. But Tim wouldn’t agree to the statement he was supposed to sign, he kept changing things about it. So I went up to Tim and said: ‘We’re all waiting for you. Sign the paper and get to work.’ And he wouldn’t sign the paper, so I fired him right there. You’ll notice in the battle scene, you never see the three men put on trial for cowardice. That’s because the battle was the last thing we filmed, and we couldn’t show the two other actors without showing Tim, too.”

Carey apparently was always a handful, but he was also a master of eccentric performances that make you sit up and take notice with the thought that this nut on the screen might not be acting. That’s the kind of presence Timothy Carey has. Savvy directors had to love that.

The full Timothy Carey is on display as writer, star and director of his 1962 cult classic The World’s Greatest Sinner, which popped up on the Criterion Channel last week. I couldn’t resist. 

Martin Scorcese once said it’s one of his favorite rock films.

But I have to say it’s a stretch to call it a rock and roll movie.

To put it into perspective, Frank Zappa once referred to The World’s Greatest Sinner as the worst movie ever made, and he had an intimate knowledge of it, having been hired by Carey to write the soundtrack. Zappa was 21 at the time. In the end credits, he is simply Zappa.

My favorite Zappa moment is the theme song that starts the film, which, along with some great early Zappa guitar, includes some classic Zappa lyrics (it reminds me of his 1973 song “Montana” – “Going to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon”).

Here are the lyrics:
Ah, he’s the world’s greatest sinner
I said, the world’s greatest sinner
As a sinner he’s a winner
Honey, he’s no beginner
He’s rotten to the core
Daddy, you can’t say no more
He’s the world’s greatest sinner
If you’ve never sinned before
Then you know what I mean
If you see him walkin’
Around the floor
He’s the meanest creature you ever seen
I mean, he is terrible!
Too much!
He’s no beginner
He’s the world’s greatest sinner

Carey is Clarence Hilliard, an unhappy insurance salesman who is fired for telling people they don’t need insurance. Seeing him tell a woman on the telephone that she doesn’t need funeral insurance because when she dies her body will stink so much that others will be happy to bury her is almost worth the price of admission.

With his newfound freedom, Clarence wanders the streets and ends up at a dance attended by young black people grooving to a band led by what seems to be a very untalented white boy with an acoustic guitar. Women at the front of the stage inexplicably keep grabbing at the white boy. 

Clarence is obviously impressed by what the music does to people, so he gets himself a guitar and changes his name to God.

But he doesn’t want to be a musician or preacher. He wants to be a politician. Satan helps make that happen.

His main message is that heaven is here on earth and everyone can be a super human with life eternal by following him. 

Does he believe that, even after his mother dies? Do demagogues ever believe their schticks?

His secret is that he has the devil on his side. A MAGA-like cult grows up around his Eternal Man’s Party, but they don’t wear EMP hats. Instead, they wear stickers on their arms with the letter F. I wondered for a while what the f... “F” might stand for, until Clarence finally explains – they are Followers. Really? Timmy! Come on! At least ramp it up a notch to Fanatics. Or Freaks.

As God campaigns to become president of the United States, we see him seduce a variety of women, including a senior citizen who wants to give him her life savings, but he can’t tell her children, a 14-year-old follower, and everything in between.

Perhaps worse than having to watch those scenes are when God puts on a rockabilly concert, rips off his gold lame sport coat and begins to shake his fatty bulk in a perverse imitation of young Elvis. Ugh!
One thing I wondered – God’s assitant and very first follower suggests he wear a fake soul patch when in public. He does so at first, but eventually is senn full-time in the fake soul patch. Is that where Frank Zappa got the idea for his trademark soul patch?

The film showing on Criterion is a restored edition overseen by Carey’s son, Romeo Carey. I do believe Romeo was in Madison, Wis., last month, when the Wisconsin Film Festival featured The World’s Greatest Sinner.

I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone but Zappa and Timothy Carey fans.