Film noir isn’t really a genre. It’s a mood. Its elements are so well known that they border on self-parody. Neon lights. Inky black shadows. An empty bottle of whiskey. A gun. A dame with a past. A desperate, doomed man.
Like German Expressionism during the 1930s, it was a cultural processing of a historic trauma. Like French Poetic Realism during that same decade, film noir is fixed in a particular culture during a particular time. In this case, the culture was the inherently optimistic one of the United States. The time was just after World War II when the foundations of that optimism were severely tested. A generation of men returned from Europe and the Pacific scarred and dazed by the mind-boggling carnage of the war only to discover that their women were doing just fine working in factories and offices. Is it any wonder then that perhaps the most frequent trope in noir is of a man, seemingly tough but riven with weakness, undone by a powerful, sexually-dominating femme fatale?
Though those gender roles were quickly reshuffled and women were, for a time, banished back to the realm of domesticity, cracks remained in the brittle veneer of American masculinity. Add to that existential anxieties over the bomb and the Red Scare’s corrosive paranoia and you have a whole toxic stew of cultural fears burbling out of the American collective unconscious. And film noir articulated those fears better than just about anything else.
Of course, the reason film noir has proved to be so enduring is because of its look. The spare lighting, the canted angles, the grotesque shadows. It’s German Expressionism cast through the lens of Orson Welles. Its stark style melded perfectly with noir’s bleak cynicism. It should come as no surprise that some of the best noir directors – Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and especially Billy Wilder – fled Germany for the warmer climes of Hollywood. The style was also cheap -- lots of shadows means less money spent on lights. It was a boon for the scores of independent producers who made noirs on a shoestring.
- Detour Free – Edgar Ulmer’s cult classic noir film shot in 6 days. (1945)
- D.O.A. - Free - Rudolph Maté’s classic noir film. Called “one of the most accomplished, innovative, and downright twisted entrants to the film noir genre.” (1950)
- The Hitch-Hiker - Free – The first noir film made by a woman noir director, Ida Lupino. It appears above. (1953)
- The Naked Kiss - Free - Constance Towers is a prostitute trying to start new life in a small town. Directed by Sam Fuller. (1964)
- The Stranger - Free – Directed by Orson Welles with Edward G. Robinson. One of Welles’s major commercial successes. (1946)
Check out the full list of 50 free noir films here, or find them in our larger collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.