Johnny Dark (1954)

Johnny Dark (1954) is not a film noir title, despite Johnny Dark being a provocatively film noir style title.

Instead Johnny Dark is a rather pleasant and fairly swift drama film about a motor car engineer who builds a super-efficient sports car, but finds himself sanctioned by the owner of the firm he works for, who is so stuck in his ways that he only wants to make super chunky American family cars that take six people —  a man who sees the sports car as a sign of corruption and decline in civic standards.

There is surprisingly little else to the story of Johnny Dark. The men are test racers and engineers and they used to be USAF pilots.

The owner of the company is fighting with a group of investors, each trying to gain control and this causes him to back the project, and kill it once the proxy vote is over.

The men are young and  cavalier and they have the hots for Piper Laurie who also works at the motor car company. Annoyingly for her, Piper Laurie's character Liz Fielding can't get on in the firm — it's not because she's a woman. It's because she's the boss's granddaughter and he doesn't approve. Yet the anti-nepotism clause might not have otherwise applied had she been a strapping loon, but we will never know.

Tony Curtis as motor-head Johnny Dark (1954)

The men are backed by the true brains behind the film, the character of Scotty as played by Paul Kelly.

Scotty persuades the owner to make the car but the plan is to drop it as soon as the proxy vote has occurred and this is demonstrated in managerial sequences, which true to the time, were becoming more and increasingly popular in films.

Upset at the rejection of his young genius, Johnny Dark, he of the strange and kind of inappropriate name, enters the sports car in an all American race from southern California to the Canadian border.

Sports car design by . . . Johnny Dark (1954)

The opulent tapestry of the cinematic minor-work Johnny Dark (1954) intricately woven into the sprawling panorama of B-movie racing car melodramas, unfurls its narrative with a deliberate and ostentatious dearth of astonishments. 

Nevertheless, this transcendent magnum opus ascends to the zenith of execution with an exquisite modicum of adequacy, seamlessly orchestrating a symphony of proficiency across all cinematic domains – whether it be the pulsating kinetic cadence of action, the choreography of comedic interludes, the thespian sonnetry articulating dramatic crescendos, or the balletic choreography of romantic entanglements.

Within this celluloid opus, Tony Curtis dons the mantle of a performative virtuoso, his embodiment of the role of the automobile savant Johnny Dark exuding an earnest yearning for the acclamation of discerning audiences. As he deftly maneuvers through the high-velocity straits of a pivotal race, the narrative delicately unfurls a richly textured tapestry, wherein the erstwhile confidant-now-unscrupulous-antagonist, Duke Benson – a character enlivened by the effervescence of Don Taylor – becomes a focal point of confrontation.

This cinematic odyssey attains an augmented aesthetic resonance through captivating track sequences, directorial maneuvers executed with a sublime dexterity, and a climactic denouement that, with poetic finesse, endeavors to assuage the monotony inherent in prosaic interludes and the languorous moments that precede it. The celluloid alchemy between Curtis and Piper Laurie, who, in her embodiment of Liz Fielding, exudes the indomitably strong-willed, flame-haired persona, blossoms into a saccharine symbiosis, imparting a verisimilitude to the narrative that is both pleasantly mellifluous and palpably resonant.

But this is no gangster nor noir film, but instead a lightweight racing movie, with decent aerial photography and a young Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie, both shining for all their youthful Technicolor part in the process.  

Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie in Johnny Dark (1954)

Paul Michael Kelly, a Brooklyn native born into an Irish Catholic family, emerged as a prominent figure on both Broadway and the silver screen. His early foray into showbiz began at a tender age, making his Broadway debut at eight and later earning the moniker 'Chick Kelly, the Vitagraph Boy' for his work at Vitagraph Studios. Transitioning seamlessly from stage to screen, he appeared alongside notable luminaries such as Maurice Costello and Constance Talmadge.

The roaring twenties brought Kelly to the pinnacle of his career, marked by his romantic pairing with Mary Miles Minter in the silent classic "Anne of Green Gables" and subsequent successes on both stage and screen. However, his personal life took a dramatic turn with his involvement in a torrid love affair with actress Dorothy Mackaye, culminating in a tragic altercation resulting in her husband's death.

Scatman Crothers in Johnny Dark (1954)

The ensuing scandal cast a shadow over Kelly's career, resulting in a conviction for manslaughter and a brief stint behind bars. Despite the tumultuous events, he managed to revive his career, gracing both Broadway and Hollywood with his indomitable presence. His marriage to Claire Owen brought a semblance of stability amidst the turmoil, and his later achievements, including a Tony Award win, solidified his legacy in the annals of entertainment.

However, tragedy struck once more when Kelly succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1956, leaving behind a rich legacy and a tale marked by both triumph and tragedy.

Tony Curtis in Johnny Dark (1954)

In 1927, Paul Kelly spent 25 months in California's infamous San Quentin prison for beating to death Ray Raymond, the first husband of Dorothy Mackaye, an actress who would later become his wife (judged an accomplice for withholding information, she herself was briefly imprisoned).

Won Broadway's 1948 Tony Award as Best Actor (Dramatic) for Command Decision. The award was shared with Henry Fonda for Mister Roberts and Basil Rathbone for The Heiress.

Kelly's last film before the manslaughter charge was The Poor Nut (1927) which was not released until the following August, by which time Kelly was behind bars. As a result, the film's distributors opted to remove Kelly's name from the credits, even though he played a prominent supporting role.

Don Taylor in Johnny Dark (1954)

Donald Taylor (1920 – 1998) was an American actor and film director who co-starred in 1940s and 1950s classics, including the 1948 film noir The Naked City, Battleground, Father of the Bride, Father's Little Dividend and Stalag 17. He later turned to directing films such as Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Tom Sawyer (1973), Echoes of a Summer (1976), and Damien: Omen II (1978).

In all the Hollywoodian annals of automotive ardour, however, Johnny Dark, a fervent aficionado and automotive virtuoso portrayed with panache by Tony Curtis, engineers in this movie a revolutionary race car spurned by his corporate patron, Fielding Motors. The car enters a race nonetheless and the rest can be surmised by anyone familiar with key tropes and plot tactics.

Tony Curtis in Johnny Dark (1954)

Undeterred by the corporate quagmire, he thrusts his innovation into the crucible of the Reno-to-Tijuana road race, a proving ground for both machine and man. Alongside him in this odyssey is Liz (Laurie), the indomitable daughter of Fielding Motors' CEO, a spirited heiress to automotive royalty.

The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of Technicolor splendour, a vibrant canvas painted by the same hands that crafted the cinematic tapestry of This Island Earth (1955). The celluloid spectacle serves as a vehicular showcase, prominently featuring the Woodill Wildfire — a bespoke sports car, an ephemeral creation born in Lynwood, a suburb adorning the outskirts of Los Angeles. 

This handcrafted marvel, emerging from the atelier of Woody Woodill Motors between 1953 and 1957, epitomizes the epitome of automotive craftsmanship.

The film, beyond its cinematic exuberance, becomes a veritable time capsule, unveiling a gallery of rare gems from the early 1950s American sports car milieu. These automotive phantoms, crafted in limited numbers by audacious independent manufacturers, now stand as coveted artefacts in the collections of automobile connoisseurs.

Beneath the hood of this light-hearted cinematic escapade lies a nod to the Woodill Wildfire's legacy, an emblem of a bygone era when automotive dreams were hand-moulded and revved on the fringes of the mainstream. A vehicular symphony choreographed by the hands of automotive mavericks, "Johnny Dark" not only captures the thrill of the race but immortalizes the allure of these rare automotive muses.

A decade hence, the cinematic wheel turned once more as Bill Alland and director Jack Arnold reincarnated this celluloid reverie into The Lively Set (Universal, 1964), a testament to the enduring legacy of Johnny Dark's automotive odyssey.

Ilka Chase in Johnny Dark (1954)

There is nothing that speaks film noir about the film Johnny Dark (1954) although it finds itself included because in an ongoing voyage of discovery to learn everything about the film noir Johnny (Blank!) naming category of film noir. This naming trend incidentally does virtually always denote film noir — even up until the plausible neo-noir elements of the Keanu Reeves film Johnny Mnemonic (1995).

But there is no noir here, and not so much as a sniff. There are no guns and very little tension, and little in the way of deceit and paranoia, not to mention nothing to report in the way of larceny, murder and blackmail.

Ain't no noir here . . . Paul Kelly in Johnny Dark (1954)

It's incredible that they could make films at all without these elements but it did happen from time to time in the 1950s. The results — decidedly non-film noir — were kind of like Johnny Dark (1954). These are movies that amble along and capitalise on a relaxed feeling of well-being and their enjoyment above all else of the colour process, a finesse that came to bury noir in the treasured casket of movie history.

Johnny Dark (1954) on Wikipedia

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