The cable TV event of the century--more or less--happened this weekend with the 2 AM screening on TCM of Timothy Carey's more or less forgotten classic, THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER! (1962) If you don't know about it, imagine Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD if it was edited with a sling blade by the cross-eyed stepchild of John Cassavetes and Ed Wood, with a soundtrack by a pre-famous Frank Zappa and narration by Paul Frees (as the devil).
Carey plays an insurance salesman who has an off camera spiritual awakening and becomes convinced he's God and everyone is immortal or will be if they follow him. He shoots up the ladder of success by becoming a rock star and the blasphemy escalates until his ultimate cosmic comeuppance, or doesn't it?
SINNER is truly disjointed and cacophonous, with no connecting tissue between the studio set-bound "sound-engineered" scenes and the MOS hand-held outdoors (with the Frees' narration) and badly-miked crowd shots, making it herk and jerk around like so much indie drive in cinema of the age (i.e. H.G. Lewis). But Carey is hilarious and even touching as a sort of a slovenly Brooklyn-accented mumbler gone messianic. The method beat lummox-ishness of the great Carey fits the slovenly picture so that he seems like some big dumb Phraedo/Lenny-style brother to the young Brando/James Deans of better-made films. You can imagine him trailing behind them, screaming look Mikey, I made me a pitcha too, right? Not as pretty and fancy as yours Mikey, but Mikey! Mikey, it's fa ME! FAH ME!
Of course, the messiness of it all is just fine. We're here not for connective narrative tissue but to see Carey shake and rattle like a Santeria serpent god swallowing an electrocuted Elvis, and that's what he does. He's also sweet and fatherly at times, nervously maniacal at others. His truck with deviltry has the same desperate ring as it does for Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT or Captain Cutshaw in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, men who rant and rage against God because they desperately need a sign. For that to work, you need an actor of titanic scope, who can be the whole show, an evangelist still ranting even as the tent catches on fire and collapses atop him.
That said, carrying the whole tent on his shoulders is clearly a strain. A weird-talking method maniac in general, Carey in SINNER has the weary look of someone who's running himself ragged. Directing and staring in a low budget film at the same time much more difficult than you would think (you're basically the whole crew, too). He appears exhausted in some scenes and exhausted to the point of manic elation in others; but the rest of the time he's... just perfect, gamboling into brilliant oration ala Willie Stark in ALL THE KINGS MEN. Joy aboundeth in these scenes, as does surprise bits of tenderness: he loves his horse and regards all humans with a sleepy naturalistic affection. I especially like how he calls everybody "deah"--as in "No, my deah, you don't need insurance"--and there's plenty of time for him to nuzzle with his wife and menagerie (he also has a snake and a big Marmaduke of a dog) in between 'talking points' which helps the whole thing drift towards family album status, as if to make it to feature length, Carey had to use every scrap of film in his attic.
Doesn't matter - it's all priceless.
His new religion is never quite fleshed out (just how is he going to make everyone immortal?) but it's worth playing along, humoring his conceits, just to watch Carey make out with old rich lady sponsors and-- most of all--to shake his flabby frame on stage during his frenzied rock orations: half in a voodoo trance, half Corman-esque beatnik (his assistant urges him to glue on a fake goatee because it makes him look "better") channeling ELMER GANTRY, whatever, it gets repetitive but it's never phoned in, it's a mess but like the man himself, even at its worst it's better than ten other films playing at the same time, and it's a true original.
Hmmm, come to think of it - Robert Duvall produced THE APOSTLE and there's some similarity. I totally support actors who want to get their megalomaniacal desire to be adored and adulated out onscreen and have the balls to go for it all the way, to let the demons out in the name of love rather than sublimating and subtextualizing and cuddling it down like Kevins Spacey and Costner and of course Robin Williams, which to me is treacly and suspicious, especially when compared to the ravenous and infectious madness of Duvall and Carey.
Maybe that's the difference between the real nuts and those who just pursue nuttiness the way a man with no mouth pursues a glass of water. It all boils down to love. It's the difference between those who love you and those who want you to love them. Tim Carey loves you. If he had his way he'd pull you into the celluloid and start making out with you, no matter who or what you are. I think he French kisses just about everyone and everything in this movie, but he does it out of love not sex and so it's pure. Do you hear me, Kevins?? PURE!!!!! Those who want to live forever must do so through othehs. As Carey puts it in the film "you are all Gods, and ya gonna live foreva..."
I can't watch the whole mess in one sitting, but I believe he means it.