I try to catch the Noir City film festival whenever it comes through Los Angeles, not just because it uses the Egyptian, one of my favorite theaters in town, but because it comes curated by the experts. You'd have a hard time finding any group more knowledgeable about film noir than the Film Noir Foundation, who put Noir City on, and anyone in particular more knowledgeable than its founder and president, "noirchaeologist" Eddie Muller.
The talks he sometimes gives before screenings give a sense of the depth and scope of his knowledge of the genre; you can sample it in a video clip where he introduces Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (above) at last year's Noir City Seattle.
You may remember Muller's name from our post featuring his list of the 25 noir films that will stand the test of time. I do recommend Noir City as the finest context in which to watch any of them, but you don't have to wait until the festival comes to your town to see a few, such as Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street and Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour. (2nd and 3rd on this page.) They and various other important pieces of the film noir canon have fallen into the public domain, making them easily and legally viewable free online. Watch The Hitch-Hiker that way after you've seen Muller's introduction, and you can replicate a little of the Noir City experience in the comfort of your own home.
Other public-domain noirs of note include Orson Welles' The Stranger, a subject of controversy among Welles fans but one about which Noir of the Week says "you couldn't make a better choice if you're looking for a conventional, fantastic looking film noir thriller."
And as the name of the festival implies, when we talk about such a highly urban storytelling tradition as noir, we very often talk about the city as well. Rudolph Maté's D.O.A. includes as a particularly vivid depiction of 1940s Los Angeles and one of the more dramatic uses of the beloved Bradbury Building in cinema history. These five pictures should put you well on your way to a stronger grasp of film noir, and no doubt get you ready to explore our list of 60 free noir films online.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.