Quote of the Week

“A bad actor is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing of himself,” Jack Smith once wrote. Timothy Agoglia Carey (1929–1994), subject of a 10-day retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, was surely all of those things, but he was not exactly a bad actor—this Brooklyn-born, apparently self-taught Method man was more like a way of life.

A scary presence onscreen, Carey was an imposing palooka prone to upstaging fellow cast members by artfully flinging his body around the set. He had a shambling, sleepy-eyed stance and the grinning volatility of a barroom brawler, playing tough guys, lunatics, and chortling combinations of the two—although his career role was as a whimpering coward. As a performer, Carey was unafraid to make a spectacle of himself. His earliest claim to fame was as a member of Lee Marvin’s motorcycle gang in The Wild One (1953), spontaneously opening a beer bottle and surprising Marlon Brando, the grand master of on-camera improvisation, with a shower of suds.

However pissed, Brando did employ Carey again in his sole directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961)—or maybe it was Stanley Kubrick, the project’s original director. Kubrick had used Carey twice before to tremendous effect—as the racetrack hit man in The Killing (1956), enthusiastically primed to assassinate a horse and, even more memorably, as one of the condemned soldiers in Paths of Glory (1957). Unfairly sentenced to death, Carey steals the movie with his smirky drawl, inappropriate giggles, cud-chewing line reading, and sobbing cri de coeur: “I don’t wanna die!!!!!!” This embodiment of pure, hysterical fear made Carey an underground hero and, seven years later, inspired Esquire to run his picture opposite John Wayne’s as a paradigm of the so-called New Sentimentality: “A minor character actor who manages to excite us in a personal way is a real celebrity.”

Carey’s subsequent movie career was spotty but choice—a sadistic Union sergeant in Phil Karlson’s A Time for Killing (1967), a version of himself in Bob Rafelson’s Monkees musical Head (1968), and a fastidious, Marx-quoting mobster in John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Anthology is showing these, as well as Carey’s two most alarming vehicles, the indie cheapster Bayou (1957), re-released five years later as Poor White Trash with an added rape scene (starring guess-who), and The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), a movie that Carey wrote, directed, and produced over a three-year period—while appearing in nearly every shot.

The high point of Poor White Trash is Carey’s Cajun love dance, knees knocking and mouth agape. This agonized mambo is reprised in The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Carey’s bored insurance salesman becomes first a leather-lunged, immortality-promising street preacher, then a frantic rock-’n’-roller who bills himself as God, and, finally, dignified with a paste-on goatee and campaigning against death, the presidential candidate of the Eternal Man Party. Blasphemy aside, his sins include sex with female followers from 14 to 83, gratuitously smacking his little daughter and stabbing a sacramental wafer to see if it bleeds.

Fabulously scored by then unknown 20-year-old Frank Zappa, The World’s Greatest Sinner is far from incompetent filmmaking—it’s as idiotic, crafty, and unpredictable as Carey’s performance. Placing his satire at the intersection of politics, celebrity, and the media, Sinner is thematically the missing link between A Face in the Crowd and Wild in the Streets. It’s also a skid-row psychodrama to double-bill with Ed Wood’s plea for transvestite acceptance Glen or Glenda or Spencer Williams’s stark morality play The Blood of Jesus. Perhaps someday, someone will do Clint Eastwood a favor and show Sinner with Hereafter.

Quote of the Week

The Brooklyn-born Carey was physically imposing—a strapping 6’4”—making him ideal for roles as brutish heavies, and he resembled a love child of Nicolas Cage and John Turturro. His penchant for improvisation—bizarre dancing, unscripted outbursts, mumbled nonsense—often got him into trouble with directors and other actors, but made lifelong fans of Jack Nicholson (who wrote Head and likely borrowed elements of Carey’s persona for his performance in The Shining [1980]); [John] Cassavetes (who claimed Carey had the “brilliance of Eisenstein”); and Quentin Tarantino, who considered Carey for the role of crime boss Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

For mondo video devotees, Carey sealed his immortality with the self-written/produced/directed oddity The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which can be characterized as [Elia] Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) as directed by Ed Wood Jr. The film, which has some of the same proto–John Waters tackiness of The Honeymoon Killers (1970), tells the tale of a bored insurance salesman who becomes an early Elvis-style rockabilly sensation. Noting the frenzy he inspires in his audiences, he begins calling himself “God,” founds a religious cult, and runs for President. Carey and his singularly untalented “band” played their own detuned rock ‘n’ roll in the concert scenes, but the film was scored by a young, pre–Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa. Narrated by the devil and featuring the real God at the climax, Sinner was admired by Elvis himself (who asked Carey for a print) and remains one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll films.

Andrew Hultkrans, “Carey On”; Art Forum, October 12, 2010

The World's Greatest Sinner

Pic of the Day: “Rio Conchos” revisited

Let’s kick off the week with another look at Chico, the seedy cantina proprietor/pimp of Gordon DouglasRio Conchos (1964). Mexican bandit Juan Luis (Anthony Franciosa) is hoping that a shiny trinket will pay for some time with one of Chico’s girls. He is correct.

Rio Conchos

Franciosa was always a joy to watch, wherever he turned up – in films, on television (he worked with Timothy again in “Fear of High Places,” the premiere episode of The Name of the Game in 1968) or on the stage. Like Tim, he developed a “difficult to work with” reputation. He utters one of my favorite lines of all time in one of his first films, Elia Kazan‘s A Face in the Crowd (1957): “I’m gonna tell you something that will move you and shake you!” He was quite unforgettable in Dario Argento‘s Tenebre (1982). He died in 2006 at age 77, the result of a massive stroke.

Pic of the Day: “Fear of High Places” revisited

Today’s pic takes another look at Jules Forel, the silent assassin of “Fear of High Places”, the premiere episode of The Name of the Game which first aired on September 20, 1968. Here he is looking appropriately mysterious before the final showdown with investigating reporter Jeff Dillon (Anthony Franciosa).

Fear of High Places - 1968

Timothy and Franciosa had previously appeared together in Gordon DouglasRio Conchos (1964). Franciosa also had a substantial role in a film that I believe was a major influence on the creation of The World’s Greatest Sinner, Elia Kazan‘s A Face in the Crowd (1957). He truly scared the bejabbers out of me in Dario Argento‘s Tenebre (1982).

Pic of the Day: “The World’s Greatest Sinner” (or, Clarence Hilliard meets Lonesome Rhodes)

I was sad to hear of the death earlier today of Andy Griffith at the age of 86. We all remember him from The Andy Griffith Show, of course, but he also made several fine films. My personal favorite of these is A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed by Elia Kazan, who directed Tim in East of Eden (1955). I would not be at all surprised to hear that this film greatly influenced Timothy as he created The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962). The themes are very similar – a charismatic “nobody” suddenly becomes a musical sensation and is courted by the sinister “powers that be” to enter the political arena, becomes drunk with power, and is soon exposed for the fraud he is.

These two films would make a great double bill. Rest well, Andy, and thanks.