The 5 Best Noir Films in the Public Domain: From Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street to Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

25 Noir Films That Will Stand the Test of Time: A List by “Noir­chael­o­gist” Eddie Muller

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

Roger Ebert Lists the 10 Essen­tial Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Noir Films

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.

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  • Lee Morrall says:

    A good list from Eddie but always dis­ap­point­ed that Vic­tor Mature’s star­ring noirs usu­al­ly get omit­ted when they are most­ly bril­liant and or groundbreaking.…the sem­i­nal I Wake Up Scream­ing, exot­ic noir mas­ter­piece The Shang­hai Ges­ture, the icon­ic noirs Kiss of Death and Cry of the City, etc.…

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