“Why can’t I be a god?” wonders Clarence Hilliard, the insurance salesman turned aspiring dictator in “The World’s Greatest Sinner.” Like a grenade slowly rolling around a room, Timothy Carey’s erratically brilliant, thoroughly independent 1962 film tracks Clarence’s rise from family man to rock’n’roller to megalomaniac politician. Along with Emilio Fernández’s “Victims of Sin,” from 1951, it’s one of two outstanding, larger-than-life restorations that are receiving theatrical premieres this week.
Clarence (Carey) is introduced as an oddball dad with a devout wife and children — until he tosses away life’s script. Clarence wants more. He takes up street-corner preaching, perhaps inspired by a voice-over narrator who sounds like Satan, a few drinks in. Hungry for attention, he starts a rock band and gyrates for crowds, sparking a riot. (The music is courtesy of a young Frank Zappa.) Now going by God Hilliard, he organizes a movement called the Eternal Man’s Party to run for president.
Carey was a genuine wild-card who could make his Method contemporaries look tame. (Stanley Kubrick tried to harness Carey’s unique bearish volatility, casting him in “Paths of Glory” and “The Killing” as a condemned soldier and a gunman.) Doubling as the director, Carey stokes the off-kilter mood with heady camera angles and looming shadows, lingering on Clarence as he goes berserk. But Carey’s reckless fool sure sounds astute on the danger of underestimating tyrants early on: “If they believed in what I was doing, they’d try to stop me. That’s what makes it so easy.”
Emilio Fernández’s “Victims of Sin” also goes full throttle with an engrossing redemption melodrama about a nightclub dancer who raises an abandoned baby. Ninón Sevilla, the Cuban-born star of musical rumberas films, plays our heroine, Violeta, with irresistible verve. She wows audiences with her moves, then fights to save the infant that a co-worker was strong-armed into leaving behind.
Fernández’s lustrously shot Mexico City film is partly a tale of two nightclubs. Violeta dazzles audiences at Cabaret Changó, where the mix of mambos and more is bumping. But a zoot-suited gangster named Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta) holds sway, and other women must work as private dancers. Pushed into the streets for her defiance, Violeta struggles to take care of her adopted child, until she is taken in by the decent owner of a nightclub by train tracks, Santiago (Tito Junco).
Kindness and cruelty are forever at war in Fernández’s world, as Violeta nobly raises her child; the hard-luck plot sometimes bursts with the moody poetry of alley views and bridge vistas (thanks to the cinematographer, the great Gabriel Figueroa). Onstage there’s a mini-anthology of music by Pérez Prado, Pedro Vargas and Rita Montaner (who charms with a spicy number called “Ay José”). But there’s music, too, in the movie’s melodrama, swooping low with Violeta’s travails before making us hope that our spirits will be lifted again.
The World’s Greatest Sinner
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 17 minutes. In theaters.
Victims of Sin
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.