Nicholas Ray | Born to Be Bad | In a Lonely Place | On Dangerous Ground | Johnny Guitar

Classic Film and Television Home Page

Nicholas Ray

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:


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 staircase.

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 effect.

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 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:

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.

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:

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.

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.

Panning Shots

The two parts of the film have different visual styles. But both sections feature extensive panning.

Inhabited Landscapes

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.

Johnny Guitar

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.

Manual Dexterity

Throughout the film, the hero Johnny Guitar is associated with manual dexterity and control:


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 Torrey Chanslor.

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.