Unlike other directors of the Golden Age, Daves actually went to college. A graduate of Stanford University, Daves nonetheless became fascinated with movies and moved to Hollywood, working in the Silent Era as a prop boy on such films as James Cruze's The Covered Wagon. He had long wanted to become a film-maker but he first became famous as a screenwriter during The '30s. His most famous credits include The Petrified Forest (Humphrey Bogart's first major role) and the original 1939 Love Affair directed by Leo McCarey (and subsequently remade several times as An Affair to Remember, by McCarey himself).
As a screenwriter, Daves was respected by producers and peers for his breadth of knowledge and research and his feeling for characterization and scene. Producer Jack Warner gave Daves his first directorial assignment for Destination Tokyo, a well regarded propaganda film about submarine warfare starring Cary Grant, because he didn't trust anybody else to get the technical details right. He also directed Pride of the Marines starring John Garfield, a movie about the travails of returning veterans released a year before The Best Years of Our Lives. He first attained critical acclaim for The Red House starring Edward G. Robinson, and the Film Noir Dark Passage starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, famous for its cast and its highly experimental first person original section.
In The '50s, Daves made 8 westerns of which two remain well known, while the others became cult classics. Broken Arrow was celebrated for being the first pro-Indian Western film, while 03:10 to Yuma endures as a classic of the genre. In addition to this, Jubal, The Hanging Tree, The Last Wagon are cult favorites for the likes of Martin Scorsese and French critic and film-maker Betrand Tavernier. He ended his career making a series of romance films that ultimately damaged his reputation. Bertrand Tavenier commended Daves for being one of the genuinely true liberal film-makers of the Golden Age, in terms of his criticism of Anti-Intellectualism and xenophobia, in addition to his craftsmanship as a film-maker, commending him on his genuinely striking visual style, experimental nature and his professionalism, noting that he was one of the few Hollywood directors who never relied on second unit and insisted on doing every scene himself.
Two of his westerns have been released on The Criterion Collection.
- Flirtation Walk (screenwriter only)
- The Petrified Forest (screenwriter only)
- Love Affair (screenwriter only)
- Destination Tokyo (debut as a director)
- Pride of the Marines
- The Red House
- Dark Passage
- Broken Arrow (1950)
- Bird of Paradise
- 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
- Demetrius and the Gladiators
- The Badlanders
- The Hanging Tree