I had watched a promo on TCM announcing the “world premiere” of the 1962 cult oddity The World’s Greatest Sinner earlier this week, but a shout-out must go to Mark Evanier for the last-minute reminder. That having been said, he should also be condemned for leading me towards this colossal turkey; it’s one of the most serious examples of WTF cinema that I’ve come across in a long time.
The main character is Clarence Hilliard (Timothy Carey), an insurance salesman who, egged on by the Devil (personified as a snake and voiced by Paul Frees—and that concludes the “big” names in Sinner’s cast), chucks his comfy nine-to-five and becomes a rockabilly singer/preacher who rechristens himself “God.” He manages to attract a lot of shee…er, followers, and sinister forces convince him to drop the rock ‘n’ roll portion of his act and become a politician—he starts his own faction, “The Eternal Party,” claiming that “We are all gods!” In between all that, he’s engaging in activities like convincing a weak-willed follower to take the easy way out (suicide) and seducing little old ladies and nubile fourteen-year-olds (I’m no prude, but in the scene where Hilliard starts making out with “Grandma” I almost shut the darn thing off). Unfortunately, the Supreme Being who’s copyrighted “God” doesn’t cotton to all this nonsense, and takes Hilliard out in a finale that has to be seen to be believed.
I suppose the movie’s title is in reference to the fact that Clarence Hilliard has the audacity to label himself as “God,” and my take on this is that if he went a less controversial route, like using lowercase letters (“god”) or maybe adding a silent “h” (“Ghod”) this movie would cease to be. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, because to be honest—watching The World’s Greatest Sinner took an hour and twenty minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. I don’t think this is so much actor-writer-director Carey’s fault—in fact, I suspect I wasn’t the individual he had in mind when he finished Sinner:
DEVOTEE: Great job, Tim…this movie is a masterpiece.
CAREY: Well…I have a feeling that Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. won’t care for it—and he won’t be born for another year.
There are a lot of people who like this movie. There’s one reviewer at the IMDb who remarked, “Quite simply, the greatest film I have ever seen in my life.” (He apparently doesn’t get out much.) The promo that TCM ran this week featured Carey’s son Romeo, who states in interview clips that Sinner had quite a few devotees: Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese—who programmed the movie (and my memory maybe a little shaky on this) at a film festival one time as “The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie of All Time.” (Marty—we all appreciate you directing our attention to neglected treats like Peeping Tom  and Plein soleil [1960, aka Purple Noon]…but maybe you should have quit while you were ahead.) John Cassavetes, who cast Carey in films like Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), once compared the actor to director Sergei Eisenstein.
Now, Carey had a reputation for being intensely disliked by others in his profession: Kirk Douglas reportedly hated his guts; Richard Widmark is said to have beaten him up while filming The Last Wagon (1956); and Marlon Brando stabbed Carey with a pen during the making of One-Eyed Jacks (1961). So I’m wondering if the praise directed toward Carey’s Sinner might not have been out of fear of what the temperamental actor would do if someone foolishly considered dissing his vanity project. (“Uh…gee, Tim…that was great… [Glancing at watch] Jesus, is that the time? Well, I gotta be motorin’…lot of things to do tomorrow…packing up my stuff and moving somewhere else…getting an unlisted phone number…you know how it is…”)
Many individuals are also drawn to this movie because of “the Frank Zappa factor”: the legendary rock ‘n’ roll musician penned the film’s theme song and composed the music score. (I’ve never been hip on Zappa, but devotees will probably get a kick out of Sinner because of it). One of Sinner’s cinematographers also gained a bit of notoriety: Ray Dennis Steckler, who later helmed The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964), Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966) and other TCM Underground mainstays. (The IMDb also notes that Edgar G. Ulmer worked on this film, under the nom de cinema of “Ove H. Sehested.”)
A goodly portion of IMDb commenters have acknowledged that while the supporting cast of Sinner is strictly from hunger, it’s the charismatic Carey that (pardon the pun) carries the day in the lead. Look, I think Carey was one hell of a character actor, putting in outstanding performances in films like Crime Wave (1954), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957, which is probably his finest moment on screen, as the doomed Private Maurice Ferol) and the little-seen Convicts 4 (1962). I even sat through Finger Man (1955)—with Frank Lovejoy, yet—on the basis of a review I once read by novelist/noir connoisseur Barry Gifford. But while others may watch Sinner and be convinced that Carey’s character has the charm and personality to attract devoted followers to his religious cause, I can’t see any further than “South Dakota Slim” from Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). (“Leave it to ol’ Slim…I’ve got ideas…and they’re all vile, Bubie…”)
As the trade ads observed of Sinner: “You’ll love it – or – you’ll hate it.” Let me put this as diplomatically as I can: this movie makes Skidoo (1968) look like a masterpiece. (And if memory serves me correct, there’s a “God” in that film, too.)
*I realize Savannahians are probably the only ones who’ll get this joke…but I couldn’t resist.