Quote of the Week

“The World’s Greatest Sinner” and the Big Timothy Carey Question

Timothy Who? Timothy Agoglia Carey, sometimes Tim Carey, most of the time Timothy Carey. 1929-94. This character actor (dis)graced American screens for five decades, playing vile, despicable and loathsome scum of the earth, void of any redeeming quality.

What has he been in? You might be familiar with The Wild One (1953), East of Eden (1955), The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) to mention a few out of 50 something screen appearances – not counting television, which credits for about 50 more. Despite this sizable curriculum, he was quite possibly fired more often than any other actor in Hollywood, for example by Billy Wilder and Arthur Penn, and also quite willfully turned down parts in movies such as the first two Godfather films as well as Kubrick‘s Spartacus.

Why so vile, despicable etc? Well, he throws a beer in Brando‘s face, beats up James Dean, crushes a cockroach, pushes a girl into a bowl of chili, shoots a horse and verbally abuses a black man, all this in the most unspeakable of ways. And all this during the first ten years of his career…

If so vile etc – why is he worth watching? This 193 cm/6′ 4″ male specimen sported a pair of heavy-lidded eyes that matched Robert Mitchum’s, a set of clenched teeth that beat out Burt Lancaster’s, a dance routine that would have frightened James Brown and tantrums that outdid Harvey Keitel’s. This is partly why.

The World’s Greatest Sinner? A film he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, shot between 1958 and 1961, and released in 1963. He plays Clarence Hilliard, an insurance salesman who quits his job, changes his name from Clarence to God (he keeps Hilliard) and starts his own political/religious movement, promising to turn everyone into “millionaires, gods, super human beings!” He dons a silver lamé suit [NB: It was actually gold] and becomes a (very unlikely) rock ‘n’ roll idol, then runs for president of the United States as the candidate of The Eternal Man Party. The film is narrated by a snake and was promoted as “The most condemned and praised American movie of its Time”, but soon disappeared from the public eye. Among the few people who saw it were Frank Zappa, who wrote the film’s songs and called it the world’s worst film, and John Cassavetes, who said it had the emotional brilliance of Eisenstein. Among the people who didn’t see it was an indifferent Ingmar Bergman, despite the fact that Carey sent a friend to Sweden with a print earmarked for the director’s viewing pleasure, as well as a most enthusiastic Elvis Presley, on whom Carey did not want to waste a precious print, as he only had four left.

Carey and Vienna? Some almost five decades late, in November 1st, 2009, The World’s Greatest Sinner finally had its Austrian premiere. A packed audience at the legendary Gartenbaukino cinema in Vienna savoured the treat with awe. A tribute section devoted to selected Carey gems included Head (featuring pop group The Monkees and written by Jack Nicholson), Minnie and Moskowitz, Paths of Glory, Poor White Trash (a sordid exploitation story in which scary Carey is again seen doing a crazy dance), and another Carey directorial effort, Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, in which he plays a kind (!) member of a ladies knitting club who constantly roller-skates and wants to clothe naked animals. Along for the ride was Romeo Carey, one of four [NB: Actually six] of the actor’s children, providing insightful information on his father’s career (as well as being living proof of the fact that Carey, apart from being vile, despicable and loathsome, also was a family man) and guiding us through a highly unusual career (which also include a one-man stage performance on the topic of flatulence).

So is he just a cult guy? True, if Carey is in a film, even if it’s Francis the Talking Mule in the Haunted House, it’s worth seeing. Even in the smallest of parts, he manages to steal from the greatest of greats – some of them feeling surprisingly outdated these days, whereas Carey himself remains utterly watchable. In this respect, he comes across as a forerunner of sorts to actors like Vincent Gallo, Harvey Keitel and even Michael Richards, whose Kramer character in Seinfeld arguably owes a moment or two to Carey. In other words, this is an actor with a resonating presence. The idea of giving Carey a well-deserved tribute is thus highly appropriate, as well as being film festival retrospective programming at its finest.

Why has no one come up with this idea before? That’s The Big Timothy Carey Question. Quite simply.

"He's the World's Greatest Sinner" by eyeodyssey on Deviantart

“He’s the World’s Greatest Sinner” by Aaron Dylan Kearns (eyeodyssey) on DeviantArt

Quote of the Week

Modern hipsters didn’t invent the cult actor. Oh, we might all feel really cool raving about icons like Christopher Walken or newcomers like Michael Shannon. There’s still a long history of weirdo artists infiltrating our movie theaters and living rooms. Just consider the epic strangeness of Timothy Carey. He maintained a perfectly normal career as a character actor right through the 1980s. In fact, Carey would’ve managed one more great role if he’d passed Quentin Tarantino’s audition to play the crime boss in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino cast veteran oddball actor Lawrence Tierney instead. The director dedicated Reservoir Dogs to a list of idols that included Carey, though. That was nice–especially since Carey would pass away in 1994.

But why would Tarantino dedicate his first feature to a guy who’d shown up in mainstream TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, and CHiPs? That’s because Carey was far more than a character actor. He was a beatnik visionary and a true wild man. The young actor first made a name for himself by stealing a scene from Marlon Brando in the pioneering biker epic The Wild One. Carey didn’t even get billing, but the hulking actor with the basso voice was soon being used as a heavy by all kinds of directors. He gave one of his most compelling performances as a crazed Cajun in 1957’s Bayou, where he contributed to a sleazy atmosphere that kept the movie playing the drive-in circuit well into the ’70s.

Stanley Kubrick cast Carey in memorable roles for both The Killing and Paths of Glory, and a lot of other directors–including John Cassavetes–loved Carey’s knack for crazed improvisation. That was the kind of Hollywood connection that got Carey playing parts in three episodes of Columbo. Other directors, however, couldn’t tolerate Carey’s maniacal Method acting.

Carey did a lot to sabotage his own career, too. He turned down roles in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II–and walked off the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. That’s three less classics in Carey’s weird filmography, but he found time to appear in Chesty Anderson, U.S. Navy and the Joe Don Baker epic Speedtrap. To be fair, Chesty Anderson gave Carey the freedom to let loose with one of his more amazing performances.

Carey also wrote and directed himself to an amazing role in 1962’s The World’s Greatest Sinner–which was pretty much forgotten for most of Carey’s career. Originally, the film’s legend was kept alive by some musical contributions from Frank Zappa. Then Sinner began to build a bigger reputation as Carey’s own careening genius built his own cult. It’s an amazing film, and was recently restored and is now available to the masses. There’s no other movie like it.

Speedtrap

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“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 Early Days
It is ironic that a man, whose name is so widely unrecognized, could make such an impression on so many people. You don’t forget Timothy Carey. The infancy of Carey’s career consisted of small roles, often playing “the heavy” or a sideline thug. Yet, Carey’s presence could not be overlooked.

Carey’s film career started small and didn’t really get to grow much more as time went on. His first film role came in 1951, with an uncredited role in Billy Wilder’s noir film The Big Carnival [Marisa’s note: AKA Ace in the Hole. Timothy may have been edited out of the finished film, however.] From there he played another small, uncredited part in the William A. Wellman‘s rustic western Across the Wide Missouri. After working in some forgettable films and playing small, miniscule parts, Carey got his first chance to really shine.

In André De Toth’s gritty noir drama, Crime Wave (1954), Carey’s appearance comes late in the film where he oozes malevolence as Johnny Haslett. He then spends a good deal of time off-camera babysitting the protagonist’s wife. A testament to Carey’s creepiness on screen, the brief glimpse of him as Haslett is enough to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Moving up from the number four thug to the crime boss’s right-hand man, Carey played Lou Terpe in Harold D. Schuster’s Finger Man (1955). Faithful to a fault, Carey makes the most of his small role, seething with pent-up penitentiary anger at the film’s wimpy hero.

Between his work in Crime Wave and Finger Man, Carey had a small part in the Marlon Brando vehicle, The Wild One. Carey was uncredited in the film, but even with the limited screen time and lack of respect he was given, he managed to turn in the most memorable performance in the film. With his spraying of the soda pop into Marlon Brando’s face, Carey carved his imprint into the minds of many, making his miniscule Chino Boy #1 credit much more than expected. And from there, his small but loud presence in many films to come, like East of Eden, Rumble on the Docks, and Revolt in the Big House, created the enigmatically fascinating actor that one can only call Timothy Carey.

– Sam McAbee, “Timothy Carey: Saint of the Underground”; Cashiers du Cinemart #12 (2001)

The Wild One

Quote of the Week

Of course, the main reason to see THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER is to observe Timothy Carey with the brakes removed. He’s mesmerizing in every scene but subtlety is not his specialty. Some critics have accused him of being a total ham and his scene chewing has an excessive, bigger-than-life quality. But just try to tear your eyes away from the screen.

Watch him shake like a bowl of radioactive jello as his Elvis-like alter ego dressed in gold lamé (There’s a little James Brown thrown in as well – “Please! Please! Please! Please! Please! Take My Hand!” –  and maybe even some Tiny Tim). See him transform before your eyes into a hell and brimstone evangelist or play it sweet and low-key as an insurance salesman who’s just “seen the light.”

Carey has always had his own “style” of acting and when you start to consider all of the parts he’s played, he stands out in every movie, even in films where a director like Stanley Kubrick tightly controls every detail right down to an actor’s performance. Among some of my favorite Carey performances are his scary whorehouse bouncer in East of Eden, the shell-shocked, emotionally damaged soldier facing execution in Paths of Glory, the creepy gangster assigned to watch over hostage Phyllis Kirk in Andre de Toth’s Crime Wave, one of the hell-raising motorcycle gang members in The Wild One and his racetrack marksman in The Killing. Now you can add God Hilliard in THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER to your list of favorite Carey roles.

Jeff Stafford, “God Hilliard for President!”; Movie Morlocks (September 20, 2008)

TWGS

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Timothy Carey had one of the most unusual careers of all Hollywood character actors, obtaining full cult status for his portrayals of the doomed, the psychotic and the plain crazy. Carey’s career was an “Only in America” type of story, and he retains his status as a Great American Original a decade after his death.

As a 22-year-old acting school graduate, he made his film debut in 1951 as a corpse in a Clark Gable western [Across the Wide Missouri (1951)], but it was his brief, uncredited part as Chino, a member of Lee Marvin‘s motorcycle gang The Beetles [actually, Marvin played Chino, not Tim] in The Wild One (1953) that made an impression and was a harbinger of the unsavory things to come. Prone to improvising, it was the fearless Carey who came up with the idea of squirting beer in Marlon Brando‘s face, even though the Great Method Actor himself had expressed reservations about what Carey was up to. He also registered that year [1955, actually] as the bordello bouncer who threatens James Dean in East of Eden (1955), making his face, if not his name (he was uncredited in both parts), known to the mass audience.

Carey followed this up with superb acting jobs in two Stanley Kubrick films, The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). In the former he played the sociopath Nikki Arane [last name is actually Arano], who is contracted to shoot a race horse, which he does with great glee. In Paths of Glory Carey had an atypically sympathetic role as French soldier Pvt. Ferol, unjustly condemned to be shot to atone for the stupidities of his generals during World War I. However, it was in Bayou (1957) that Carey reached his apotheosis as an actor: as the psychotic Cajun Ulysses, he crafted an indelible performance that went beyond the acceptable limits of cinema scenery-chewing. He became Ulysses, on-screen, the mad Cajun who epitomized evil, his insanity perfectly encapsulated in the psychotic jig Carey danced to more fully limn his character’s madness. This classic exploitation film was re-cut and re-released as Poor White Trash (1961), and became a grindhouse Gone with the Wind (1939), playing to crowds until the 1970s (and becoming, retrospectively, one of the top-grossing films of 1957).

Jon C. Hopwood, Timothy Carey on IMDb

The Killing

Quote of the Week

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.

Richard Harland Smith, “The Bill: Warner Archives’ Bill Elliott Detective Mysteries reviewed!”; Movie Morlocks (June 13, 2014)

Chain of Evidence