Plot:Frustrated insurance salesman Clarence Hilliard (played by Timothy Carey, who also wrote and directed) writes a Nietzche-esque pamphlet that claims, “all men are gods,” and then forms a rock ‘n roll band to help push his agenda. Not long after this, politics beckon, and Clarence ditches his guitar and makes a run for the presidency.
Review: Like any good exploitation film, The World’s Greatest Sinner is a mix of low budget technical compromises, lurching story lines, ham-fisted visual metaphors, and odd, unpredictable moments. When Clarence Hilliard makes his first speech about the “Immortal Man,” he steps up onto a pile of what looks like sandbags. Then the camera slowly tilts down to reveal him standing on bags of manure, a sign reading “4 for a dollar.” On stage with his rock ‘n roll band, Clarence doesn’t resemble a twitching, gyrating Elvis so much as he does a man having an epileptic fit. Then there’s the 50-state, stock-footage campaign for president, where vaguely familiar newsreel shots cheer on intercut snippets of Hillard exhorting his followers to become gods!
But for every ridiculous moment, there’s also something a little disturbing or unexpected. One of Clarence’s first converts is an elderly woman who lets him know that he “makes her feel young again. ” He replies that she reminds him of his mother, and then the two embrace, sharing an uncomfortably passionate kiss. The flip side of this decidedly twisted sexual coin is when a teenage girl tells the-soon-to-be-president that she can deliver the youth vote to him. At first, Clarence seems a little more savvy than might be expected, getting the girl to admit she’s not 18 and is actually 14. With this fact firmly established, he proceeds to have sex with her.
An unsettling scene of a different kind occurs after a rock ‘n roll concert/rally, where the all-white male audience decides to demonstrate its godhood by rioting. Where actual newsreel footage later used in the run for the presidency looks creaky and unconvincing, the riot looks all too real, as if shot during an actual rampage. I’ve seen crowds like this in big budget movies, and it’s not unusual to see a laughing extra or someone going lamely through the motions, but this group of young men seems to be deadly earnest as they swarm over cars in a frenzy of destruction. In this instance, the film’s low budget actually works in the picture’s favor, with its harsh lighting and handheld camera creating a surprising sense of reality.
Many of the indoor scenes have an odd aesthetic all their own. Either by intent or because the lighting kit only included a couple of spots and a reflector, many of the interior shots have two or three characters illuminated against a totally black background. It’s like a minimalist play: this desk will now represent a room: this door is the entrance to a house: these silly Greek/kitsch statues represent a grand presidential candidate’s strategy room.
This reductionist idea also carries over to the characters. Hilliard eventually ends up wearing a coat with the word “GOD’ embroidered in large letters on either sleeve. The people who have bought into his “immortal” agenda wear a patch with an F on it to let us know they are “Followers.” I was half-expecting a character to show up with a sign around his neck that proclaimed “Reporter” or maybe for another character to walk in wearing a T-shirt that read “Plot-Twist.”
The ending to The World’s Greatest Sinner is satisfyingly strange and unexpected — and visual. All good things, especially since, at one point, it appeared as if the final revelation might depend on the emotional attachment Clarence still feels for his family, something the film never actually pulls off.
I’ll end this review with a description of one of the first images in the film. Clarence, in what I guess is supposed to be a happier, simpler time, piles his family up on a horse. Clarence, his wife, and their two small children — everyone gets on. And they look a little precarious. You half expect someone to fall off before the shot ends. Here’s another detail: the scene takes place in the rain.
Did it just happen to rain that day, but the schedule and low budget demanded they had to get the scene in the can — rain or no rain? Was it serendipitous? Or was it intentional? It doesn’t really matter. This idiotic staging of the family pretending to be happy, when everyone is obviously miserable, unable to even go through the motions of being a normal family, is the perfect image to begin this twisted and singular film.
Some stuff worth knowing: Timothy Carey is probably best known for his role in Kubrick’s Path’s of Glory. He’s one of the three soldiers being executed for cowardice and not following orders. In the film, he is sarcastic and somehow both intense and laconic at the same time. And, of course, there are dark circles under his eyes. Does this man ever sleep?
Ray Dennis Steckler (director of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies!!?) was the cameraman, and there are some genuinely striking images mixed in with the more pedestrian and low budget aesthetic stuff.
Finally, Frank Zappa did the music, and the title song is a classic.