Timothy Carey, the name has a certain aura to it. Some cinephiles know this feeling, those who go out on a limb and watch what little role he has. Carey, a character actor who zigzagged through the latter half of American cinema’s history, from A to Z pictures and everything in between, had a special talent. He could make a thin role into something memorable. He threw his 6’ 4’’ body around and spoke with a voice that sounded more like a cement mixer. He stole scenes, evaporating the memory of those that came before and after it.
Only Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes managed to integrate Carey into their films seamlessly. For both filmmakers, he appeared twice in their work. For Kubrick: The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). For Cassavetes: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). They were able to rein in Carey, controlling his high-strung acting for maximum effect. In Paths of Glory, in fact, Carey gives a career-performance. An interlude from the psychotics he often played, as Private Ferol, Carey is a smooth man, someone who would fit in with Jack Kerouac and co., not WWI France. By film’s end, he becomes unraveled. Along with Ralph Meeker and Joe Turkel, he’s one of the soldiers court-martialed and executed. “I don’t want to die,” he repeats, sniveling, whimpering, and crying as he faces the firing squad.
For every friend, Carey had three or four enemies, people who couldn’t tolerate his brand of free-wheeling, combusting improvisation. Fact and legend often blur in Hollywood history. In Carey’s case, there seems to be more legend than fact. His bouts with actors and directors are tabloid-worthy and tailor-made to his outsider persona. Billy Wilder and James B. Harris fired him. Elia Kazan dubbed his guttural lines. Richard Widmark and Karl Malden beat him. Marlon Brando stabbed him with a pen. Always cheeky, Carey proclaimed that he was fired more than any other actor in Hollywood.
Tim Carey’s total face time in film noir probably doesn’t add up to an hour, if that. But oh, what a face! That uber-creepy countenance and mad-genius acting methodology make almost all of his performances unforgettable. It certainly seems that Carey commanded far more camera time than he actually did.
Grossly underutilized by Hollywood primarily due to the erratic off-screen behavior that made his off-kilter characters so powerful and edgy on screen, Timothy Agoglia Carey was more than just one of a kind. He was a brother from another planet, somehow uniquely appealing and captivating – even lovable, his ever-expanding number of cult followers might submit – in spite (or because) of the grotesque, unbalanced, and downright bizarre characters he played.
Provocatively disavowing, then, the realist documentary mode, The Killing instead embraces a kind of ironic quotation that repurposes popular genre conventions and formulas. Take, for example, one of The Killing‘s most stingingly cynical moments, the charged scene in which a deranged sniper, played with reptilian charm by Timothy Carey, strikes up an unexpected friendship with an embittered African American war veteran working as a parking attendant, played with smoldering intensity by James Edwards. For a brief moment, the awkward and spontaneous connection between the white and black man almost seems to be directed by the other Stanley of postwar Hollywood – Stanley Kramer, whose trademark brand of overwrought social-problem melodrama would give rise a few years later to The Defiant Ones (1958), a heavy-handed, Oscar-winning allegory of troubled race relations. Yet just as suddenly, Kubrick and über-hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson‘s screenplay subverts and renders ironic the social-problem formula evoked so effectively, with Carey’s demented killer unleashing a viscously casual racist barb that reveals his seemingly enlightened sympathies to be simply a convenient guise, a mocking echo of the clown mask donned by heist ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) during the climactic robbery.
Actor Timothy Carey was one of Hollywood’s true eccentrics, and when you consider how many crazy people there are in Hollywood, that’s no small claim. But even amongst that kind of competition Carey was a one-of-a-kind. Stanley Kubrick clearly saw something unique in him too, and gave him memorable roles in two of his early films, ‘The Killing’ and ‘Paths of Glory’, and from there the legendarily unpredictable Carey went on to become the ‘go-to’ man whenever a strange oddball character part needed to be cast. But he was also itching to make his own unique statement on film and from 1958 to 1961, whenever he could scrape a few bucks together he went about shooting scenes for his own labour of love: ‘The World’s Greatest Sinner’. Clarence Hilliard (Carey) is a frustrated insurance salesman who quits his meaningless job one day after he’s struck with the revelation that there is no god but man, and every man is a god whose birthright is eternal life. He starts preaching his gospel on street corners but after witnessing an ecstatic crowd at a rock and roll gig, Clarence forms his own band and soon learns how to get his message across while whipping his audience into a frenzy. With his growing fan base he decides to not only become the head of his own religious cult (rechristening himself ‘God Hilliard’ in the process), but also decides to form his own ‘Eternal Man’ political party and put himself forward as the next presidential candidate. But the biblical God has other ideas…
So as you can see, nothing too ambitious – just God, the universe and everything in between. But I have to be honest here, as fascinating as ‘The World’s Greatest Sinner’ is, it’s not a well-made film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s been made on a very low budget and for most of the running time the film is barely coherent. The direction is stilted, the editing is choppy and amateurish, and the cast are clearly people Carey just found on the street and said, ‘Hey, you’re in my movie. Now say this!’
But Carey’s as charismatic a presence as ever and the whole thing is still worth a look – even if it’s only the once – just so you can say you’ve seen it (Carey never put the film out on general release and for most of its 50-year history it’s been confined to an occasional special showing at selected cinemas). And believe it or not the title song is composed and sung by a young unknown named Frank Zappa. So altogether now: ‘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 sinnnnner…’
Weirdness Factor: Off the scale
This one starts off being narrated by the devil in the form of a snake, and things only get stranger after that. I guarantee you will not find an odder movie anywhere else – this one really is in a class of its own.
Many kind, deifying and admiring words have been written to extol the virtues of Timothy William Carey, the hulking, Irish-Italian Brooklynite actor who was notoriously difficult to work with. From his death in 1994 ebbed a slow but mighty wave of fans who have been able to articulate the importance of his long and varied career (although it must be said, even if he himself stressed the importance of always being a different character, he was ALWAYS Tim Carey in his roles). He is often mentioned in the same breath as Crispin Glover (because of his overindulgence in bit-parts and screen stealing mania) and also Andy Kaufman (for his ability to irritate everybody on a set and spontaneous outbursts of “creativity”), however, there was a quality inextricably unsurpassed in Carey that makes him quite separate from those who share his title as simply a Hollywood provocateur. He was an example par excellence of the mutinous mutant, the graceful pig, the real hero of those beneath the underdog.
His representations of unstable deadbeats (Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz), men on death row (Kubrick’s Paths of Glory) or righteous fartists (his own The Insect Trainer) all have the honor of being loved by him – characters with nothing else in common but expedient exaggeration – but are still always losers, always hated by all around them, apart from himself. In one of his glorious interviews, he announced, “Characters as evil as the ones I play just can’t be allowed to remain in society. The only time I managed to “stay alive” all the way through a picture was when I wrote and produced one myself”. However this clever byline has a witty double entendre; for his overacting, radical excitement and inability to cooperate or be boring, he was fired from almost as many roles as he was able to snag. That, and a piety about his art that made him give up done deals to be in the first two Godfathers, or roles with Tarantino and Coppola. It is immediately apparent from looking at his career that the directors that gave him the most rope (his beloved Cassavetes and the early Kubrick work) were the ones that got the most out of him.
Kicking off the week a day late is Harmon Jones‘ Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952), the musical extravaganza starring Mitzi Gaynor and Scott Brady. It provided Timothy with one of his earliest (if uncredited) speaking roles as Crockett Pace, the hot-tempered mountain-folk (“hillbilly” is so gauche) suitor of future Broadway star Emily Ann Stackerlee (Gaynor). He is seen here getting his hat knocked off by equally hot-tempered Numbers Foster (Brady).
Jones, a native of Canada, began his Hollywood career as a film editor at 20th Century-Fox in the mid-1940s. He received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Elia Kazan‘s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). He turned to directing in the early 1950s, and kept himself well occupied with both film and television projects until the late 1960s. His son, Robert C. Jones, also became an editor, getting his impressive resume off to a fine start with John Cassavetes‘ A Child Is Waiting (1963).
CHAIN OF EVIDENCE (1956). Want to know if you should watch this one? Two words: Timothy Carey. Really, what more inducement do you need? Mind you, Carey has a minor role here, playing a thug who beats affable parolee Jimmy Lydon (erstwhile star of Paramount’s Henry Aldrich films) so badly that Lydon develops amnesia and goes off to work as an auto mechanic in Saugus. Yeah, Saugus … These detective movies have an almost fetishistic devotion to geography, as if the writers were working with open copies of The Thomas Guide. Whereas a lot of Hollywood crime movies of this vintage were shot in LA but rarely got site specific, these films name-drop streets, intersections, and such outlying municipalities as Saugus (long since incorporated into Santa Clarita), Ventura, and Imperial Valley, which adds to the verisimilitude. CHAIN OF EVIDENCE (these titles are fairly interchangeable and have little relevance to the actual plots) is an odd mash-up of Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT (1949) and Tay Garnett’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), as the amnesiac is hired as a handyman by a rich guy (THE WILD ONE‘s Hugh Sanders) and winds up the fall guy in a murder plot hatched by the millionaire’s avaricious wife (Tina Carver, later the heroine of FROM HELL IT CAME) and her lover (Ross Elliott). Directed by Paul Landres (who went from this to the Allied Artists shockers THE VAMPIRE and THE RETURN OF DRACULA), CHAIN OF EVIDENCE is just peppy enough and well cast (Dabbs Greer turns up as a sympathetic doctor) to keep the middling plot moving to another sitcom-like finish. Poor John Close is knocked down the cast roster even further this time out, playing a state trooper with about twenty seconds of screen time. Timothy Carey gets three scenes and stamps through each one of them like his feet are on fire.