Nicholas Ray | Born to Be Bad
| In a Lonely Place | On Dangerous Ground
| Johnny Guitar
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Nicholas Ray is an American film director.
Born to Be Bad
Links to Johnny Guitar
Born to Be Bad (1950) shares subject matter with the romance
plot aspects of Johnny Guitar:
- Both films are about two women, one good and one bad,
who both vie for the same man.
- The good woman in both films is
a career woman, good at business. Not all fifties films were so
sympathetic to the concept of working women.
- By contrast, the
evil woman here has no interest in work, explicitly rejecting
career opportunities thrown her way.
- The bad woman in both films
is absolutely relentless about achieving her goals - Ray's villains
are horribly persistent.
- As in Johnny Guitar, the men here
are mainly sex objects, pursued for either their looks or their
- However, the men have artistic talents in both films, being
painters and writers here, just as they are musicians and dancers
in Johnny Guitar.
Born to Be Bad has several weaknesses in plausibility.
It is hard to believe that everyone would be so overwhelmingly
attracted to the scheming villainess, after seeing what a
bad person she is. Also, the good characters in the film seem
to have no weapons or defenses. Both of these things allow our
evil star to run roughshod over everybody. Secondly, I do not
enjoy villains; I am mainly interested in heroes and good characters.
The virtual disappearance of the good woman in the second half
of the film causes it to be less interesting to me.
Born to Be Bad is the subject of one of The Carol Burnett
Show's best parodies, "Raised to be Rotten".
Box-like Architecture - and Interconnecting Sets
The good woman's apartment at the beginning of the movie is the
film's most interesting set. Ray gets tremendous mileage out of
his creative camera treatment of this set:
Ray's rooms always seem to be strictly rectangular. He has little
of Fritz Lang's interest in circles or
polygons. Even when the characters are outside at Zachary Scott's
mansion, they are on a rectangular porch, or a similarly rectilinear
- It has many open, interconnecting
rooms and a giant hallway. Ray is always offering interesting
perspectives from one room to another.
- No one ever seems to actually be in a fixed place, such as a room.
They always seem to be in progress from one room to another.
- In contrast, the entrance
of the villainess shows her absolutely motionless, suddenly discovered
seated in a room. Throughout the film, we often see her posing
for paintings or photographs, similarly seated and motionless.
This lack of motion is treated by Ray as an evil quality, a lack
of the vital energy and purposeful activity shown by the good
Everyone always seems to be in some box. The box like effect is
heightened by the way we see from one room into another. We see
a character in another room, and the room looks like a giant box
containing the actor.
This is also true of the shots into the
kitchen from the main gambling hall in Johnny Guitar, a
similarly multi-roomed set. One also recalls the shots in On
Dangerous Ground showing the performers inside their cars,
shot from outside the automobiles. These too produce a box like
Staircases and Boxes
Ray's staircases tend to be enclosed. Not for him some grand sweeping
staircase off in free space. Instead, his staircases tend to be
in some box like container. The good woman's apartment staircase
is entirely contained in a rectilinear stairwell here: a box.
The outdoor staircase at Zachary Scott's has a prominent wall
along one side. (One also recalls the staircase in the gambling
hall in Johnny Guitar, and the way it tightly hugs a separate
wall at one end of the set.) Any performer standing on the staircase
has an effect of being contained in a box.
Both staircases are often shot frontally, emphasizing the walls
on each side. Ray does not like the baroque staircase angles often
found in film noir. Instead he shoots with mathematical precision
straight along the staircase, emphasizing its geometric, rectilinear
nature. This too is a form of stylization. The avoidance of off
angles gives a striking geometric quality to these shots. There
is almost a ritualistic effect, highlighting the staircase almost
as an object of sacred qualities.
In a Lonely Place
Violence and Nonconformity
In a Lonely Place (1950) is far from my favorite Ray film.
I can't stand the lead character, played by Humphrey Bogart. He
is a compulsively violent man who is always physically attacking
everyone around him. In my judgment, this man is a menace and
needs serious help. I also dislike the film's 1950's conformist
ideas: anyone who is "different" from other people is
probably a dangerous freak. The film really piles this on. No
wonder so many people were eager to escape from 1950's conformity.
The film has attitudes that are exactly bad. It is always justifying
Bogart's violence, suggesting it is manly, and having it criticized
by unpleasant people, such as the nasty cops. But his non-conformism
is treated as horrible, and is the target of nice people, such
as the cop's wife. This is the exact reverse of my own take: his
violence is very harmful, but his non-conformism should be accepted.
The violent protagonist recalls Ray's other leading men.
But most of these men are handling their problems much better
than the Bogart character:
Both men represent a hope for change.
- The cop in On Dangerous Ground
is a "normal" man being driven to violence and desperation
by his horrible job. He realizes he needs a drastic change of
pace to break this cycle; he finds it with Ida Lupino and the
- Similarly, Johnny Guitar is a formerly violent man
who has succeeded in burying his past gunslinger personality under
a whole new persona and character.
The relentless persecution the hero gets from the
cops recalls the similar persecution Joan Crawford suffers
in Johnny Guitar.
Architecture and Staging
In a Lonely Place shows many of the same staging ideas
as Born to Be Bad:
- Both films mainly take place in the characters' homes, or in
locations such as restaurants or galleries in which people carry on their personal lives.
- These homes are full of staircases, and complex rectilinear paths
leading through several levels and around corners. The characters are
always moving up and down these paths and staircases, and seeing each from a
distance along these routes.
- In both films, the creative artists
work at home. This contributes to the nearly pure focus on people's
personal lives - we rarely get to an office or business environment;
everything is purely domestic.
Artist Characters - and Plot Structure
Once again, the people in this Ray film are mainly creative artists,
working in this time in film. This art form is largely verbal
and visual, like the painters and writers of Born to Be Bad;
there are no musicians or dancers in the movie, as there will
be later in Johnny Guitar. Everyone is fairly affluent
and successful with their work - these are not people starving
in a garret.
Even the police here are obsessed with photography.
The police chief's wall is full of crime pictures, arranged in
a regular rectilinear grid in true Ray style. The taking and displaying
of photographs seems to be the police's main detective activity.
Both the photography and Bogart's screenwriting are woven into
the plot in complex ways:
Mel Ferrer's portrait of Joan Fontaine plays a similarly
complex role in Born to Be Bad.
- Events in the screen play can mimic events in the real lives
of the characters, and vice versa.
- Also, the progress of the script is an important element in the plot.
- Pirandellian moments involve the characters talking about film
technique, while the scene on screen illustrates it and acts it
I do not recall seeing much of anything like this in other
films. Jean-Luc Godard would sometimes
introduce something analogous using his avant-garde approaches.
On Dangerous Ground
On Dangerous Ground (1951) seems like two movies:
- The first section takes place in the city, and features a tough
urban atmosphere familiar to us in film noir.
- The second section shares the same
protagonist, the tough cop played by Robert Ryan, but otherwise
introduces completely new characters and plot. This second mystery
case takes place in the countryside, in a frozen mountainous area
referred to as "upstate".
Links to Johnny Guitar
The second part of On Dangerous Ground shows plot and character similarities
with the crime-plot aspects of Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954):
These five characters are virtually the whole cast of the last
hour of On Dangerous Ground. But in Johnny Guitar, they are expanded
to a host of others who have no parallel in the earlier film.
These include The Dancing Kid, the Borgnine character, and the
employees as Vienna's place, plus Mercedes' brother. Admittedly,
except for the Dancing Kid, these are all supporting types.
- Both films have a character who is driving the authorities
forward to arrest someone for a crime: vengeance for a murdered
relative. This character is fanatic, relentless and unsympathetic
in both films.
- Both have a young criminal, who is just a teenage
boy and who barely knows what he is doing.
- Both criminals are
protected by a sympathetic woman, whose house is a central location
in the film, and who has a romance with the hero. Although she
is protecting criminals out an emotional attachment, she is honest
herself in both films.
- There is also a mild mannered, easily influenced
sheriff who tends to fade into the background of both movies.
- The hero in both films is an outsider, a stranger to the community.
All of the others have known each other and lived in the same
town, but he is a visiting newcomer. He is far more neutral and
dispassionate than the others, viewing events calmly and with
- The hero has pretty macho job: a gunslinger in Johnny
Guitar, an obsessed cop in On Dangerous Ground. Both
men are trying to recover from emotional problems brought on by
excessive involvement with a violent job.
- Both heroes are played by tall actors who tower over the other
characters in the film.
Links to Characters in other Ray films
The young criminals in these films will be echoed in such later
Ray films as Run for Cover and Rebel Without a Cause.
The scenes at the end of On Dangerous Ground, where the
older hero and the young criminal fight it out over dramatic terrain
and lonely buildings, find an echo in the final confrontation
of Run for Cover.
The emotional problems of the hero at the start of On Dangerous Ground
fall into a different kind of Ray movie. He is allied to a whole
series of troubled Ray characters.
The screenplay of this film
is by A.I. Bezzerides, who later did Kiss Me Deadly (1955),
directed by Robert Aldrich. Both films
feature anti-heroes. Both films serve as critical looks at their
protagonists, revealing their faults and character flaws. However,
Robert Ryan's weary cop here is infinitely more decent than the
sleazy private eye of the later film. He is honest, and tries
to do his best, whereas Mike Hammer is selfish and corrupt.
The two parts of the film have different visual styles. But both
sections feature extensive panning.
The second part features brilliant
landscape photography, as Ray's camera pans over snow covered
mountain roads and trails. These sections are unusual in that
they do not feature wilderness areas. Instead, these scenes always
have human habitations in them: roads, farmhouses, paths, and
other human constructions. They can be described as rural, or
as tourist areas: the sort of remote but inhabited location one
might go to on vacation. Such locales rarely pop up in movies.
Westerns, which feature vast landscapes, tend to have wilderness
areas without modern buildings. And contemporary films rarely
go to such poverty stricken tourist spots, preferring resort and
wilderness areas with more glamour.
Color and Gender Role Reversal
Color in Johnny Guitar is especially associated with the
men. Turkey is in bright yellow, the Dancing Kid in green, while
the hero is in pink. His pink is a form of masquerade, or deliberate
personality change. He used to be an almost psychotic gunslinger;
now he is trying to be an anti-macho musician and entertainer.
So he has dressed himself in pink to project a non-threatening
image. This is the least macho color he could find. It is similar
to the way he conspicuously does not carry a gun, although they
are hidden in his saddlebags. These changes might be on the surface
only. His overly friendly, child-like manners are also part of
this self willed transformation.
By contrast, the women in the film are nearly colorless. Both
wear flashes of green in the opening scenes, suggestive of the
way they are both setting their caps for the Dancing Kid. But
mainly they are in dark, neutral clothes. Through most of the
film, they are either in black or white.
There is a role reversal here. In many films, both Westerns and musicals, the men are in
black and white, and the women are dressed in bright colors. In
Johnny Guitar, it is exactly the reverse. This color scheme
suggests it is the women who are the active agents in the film,
and that the men are the sex objects they pursue. This is in fact
the role the two genders play in the plot. The finale has heroine
Joan Crawford in white squaring off against villainess Mercedes
McCambridge in black. These are exactly the colors worn by countless
male cowboy good guys and bad guys throughout film history.
Throughout the film, the hero Johnny Guitar is associated with
manual dexterity and control:
- He enters the bar confrontation
in the beginning after he prevents a rolling shot glass from falling
off the edge: a memorable figure of style.
- He is an expert guitarist, as his name implies.
- Later, we see what a remarkable shot he is.
The villains' family wants to own everything. Johnny Guitar
can be read as an attack on monopolies. Liberals have always condemned monopoly,
and painted negative portraits of regions where one person or one company owned everything.
Source and TV Remake
Johnny Guitar is based on a novel by Roy Chanslor.
He also wrote the novel The Ballad of Cat Ballou.
Chanslor was married to the woman mystery writer and children's writer and illustrator
Johnny Guitar was made into an unsold 1959 pilot for a Western TV series.
This TV version starred William Joyce. William Joyce was a handsome, zanily comic actor
who was probably much less solemn than Sterling Hayden. William Joyce can be seen
having a comic field day in The Day of the Bad Man (Ida Lupino, 1960),
an episode of the Western TV series Have Gun, Will Travel.