He started his career in Hollywood as an Editor in 1932. During World War II, he directed documentaries and training films for the United States Army Air Forces. Sturges's mainstream directorial career began in 1946 with The Man Who Dared, the first of many B-movies. He made imaginative use of the widescreen CinemaScope format by placing Spencer Tracy alone against a vast desert panorama in the suspense film Bad Day at Black Rock, for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination in 1955. Over the course of his career, Sturges developed a reputation for elevated character-based drama within the confines of genre filmmaking. He was awarded the Golden Boot Award in 1992 for his lifetime contribution to Westerns.
Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, by Glenn Lovell (former film critic for the San Jose Mercury News), was published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2008.
He once met Akira Kurosawa, who told him that he loved The Magnificent Seven (which was a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai). Sturges considered this the proudest moment of his professional career. Sturges' film was an inductee in the 2013 National Film Registry list, and commented that its popularity is due in part as a springboard for several young actors, transported the locale from Japan to Mexico, putting a twist into the career of Yul Brynner and having as part of its score the Marlboro cigarette commercial theme.