38 Free Film Noir Movies in the Public DomainApril 16, 2021
Since the film noir movement took place in the 1940’s and 1950’s, there are a lot of them in the public domain. Best of all, a few of these movies are widely regarded as some of the best film noirs ever made. In addition to providing several free film noir movies you can watch right this second, we will also explain how they fell into the public domain whenever possible. To the best of our knowledge, all of these movies are entirely free and legal to enjoy. We’ll also include additional resources you can use to find even more public domain film noir titles.
- Resources for Public Domain Film Noir Movies
- What is the Public Domain? (coming soon)
- Watch More Free Movies Online (coming soon)
- 13 Film Noir Movies You Need To See
- What is Film Noir?
This is one of the most well-known film noirs in the public domain, and it’s also one of the most highly rated movies in the movement. Although most prints are in the public domain and they are free to watch, there are some more recent restorations of this movie that are copyrighted. Thankfully, the copy we have provided below is legal to enjoy at your leisure.
2. The Hitch-Hiker
This is the first film noir directed by a woman, and the director was none other than Ida Lupino. She was well known for her acting, but her directing was also quite impressive, and this is an excellent example of that. Much like other movies on this list, there might be some copyrighted prints of this film which are not legal to watch. That said, this movie is actually listed on the Library of Congress website, so it’s safe to say that it is indeed in the public domain.
3. The Stranger
Directed by Orson Welles (The Lady From Shanghai, Citizen Kane), this beloved film noir entered the public domain because its copyright was not renewed. The story was actually nominated for an Academy Award, so it’s definitely one of the better rated movies on this list. There have been several home media releases of this film, and chances are that those prints are not legal to watch for free. As usual, the version we have on our site is safe to watch without any concerns about legality.
4. Scarlet Street
This is just one of multiple excellent film noirs directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (Metropolis, The Big Heat). His early silent films featured a style which would later be influential to the film noir movement. Like many other films of its time, the copyright holder did not renew their copyright and it fell into the public domain, which means you can legally watch the following print for free.
Starring none other than Frank Sinatra (The Manchurian Candidate, Ocean’s 11) and Sterling Hayden (The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing), this film noir entered the public domain because its copyright was not renewed. That being said, there are some colorized and remastered prints which might be copyrighted, and they may not be free to enjoy. The following copy is entirely legal and definitely worth watching just to see two masters of the noir movement at their best.
6. The Man With The Golden Arm
Although this is often considered to be simply inspired by noir, it borrows enough elements from the movement to earn its rightful place on this list. This movie was directed by the legendary Otto Preminger (Laura, Anatomy of a Murder), and it stars Frank Sinatra, one of the premier faces of the film noir. Long thought to be in the public domain, it should be noted that Warner Bros does appear to own the rights to distribute new releases of the movie in the United States. As such, newer or remastered prints may not be in the public domain.
After working on films such as Vampyr and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Rudolph Maté finally got the opportunity to direct his own films in the late 1940’s, and this is one of his more notable movies. This one fell into the public domain due to a filing error, and as a result it was not renewed in time.
8. Kansas City Confidential
This is one of those cases where newer remasters from the copyright holders (MGM and Sony Pictures) are not in the public domain, but older prints are still in the public domain and free to legally enjoy. Although it’s not the most popular example of a film noir, the plot of this film was actually the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
9. The Great Flamarion
Like many noirs, this movie features a plot which begins with a murder and then provides a flashback to the events which lead to the crime. The Great Flamarion was directed by Anthony Mann, a fairly prolific director throughout the film noir movement. As is the case with many of the titles on our list, this movie fell into the public domain when its copyright was not renewed.
10. The Joe Louis Story
While this is obviously a sports movie, it also follows a lot of the same tropes as the film noir, and we feel it belongs on our list. The story of this boxing legend is told largely through a flashback, which was a storytelling device used largely by the noir at this time in film history. There’s not much information about how this movie fell into the public domain, but it has been listed as such for many years, and there have been almost no studio attempts to reclaim the film.
11. Too Late For Tears
Directed by Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, Robinson Crusoe on Mars) and based on a screenplay by Roy Huggins (The Fugitive, The Rockford Files), this film noir features a femme fatale who will do almost anything to keep the money she stole. Although it has been in the public domain for many years, there are some restorations which may not be legal to watch for free. Thankfully, the following copy is free and legal to enjoy.
Starring Mickey Rooney (The Big Operator, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Peter Lorre (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca), this movie features many of the tropes that were common among film noirs including a crime story, femme fatales and more. Although there’s not much information about how this one fell into the public domain, the studios haven’t made any real attempt to claim a copyright for the film.
13. My Favorite Brunette
This is technically a romantic comedy, but it’s also a parody of the film noir. Starring Bob Hope (The Cat and the Canary, Road to Bali), Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Tomb), and Peter Lorre (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Passage to Marseille), this movie is packed with star power. Despite all the big names in this film, it fell into the public domain in 1975 because the copyright was not renewed.
14. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Much like several other movies on this list, this one also fell into the public domain because the copyright was not renewed. Not only does Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve) star in this film noir, but it’s also the acting debut of Kirk Douglas (Spartacus, Ace In The Hole). Directed by Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front, Of Mice And Men), this is widely regarded as a high quality example of the noir movement.
15. Fear in the Night
Directed by Maxwell Shane (The Naked Street) and starring DeForest Kelley (Star Trek), this film noir was initially panned when it released. In more recent years, critics have pointed out that it actually wasn’t that bad. This movie fell into the public domain because the copyright was not renewed.
Although this might not be the most well-known film noir title, it has received a lot of positive criticism over the years. The film was directed by Arthur Lubin (Phantom of the Opera, Black Friday) and stars Charles Coburn (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monkey Business). This is another case where the copyright for this movie was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.
This is another film noir that hasn’t impressed many audiences, but it’s not exactly terrible either. Notable stars include Marc Lawrence (Diamonds are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun) and Franchot Tone (Five Graves to Cairo). As with many film noir titles made during this era, Jigsaw fell into the public domain when its copyright was not renewed.
18. Strange Illusion
If you enjoyed Detour, you might want to check out another classic film noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Although this movie isn’t quite as well-known as his other works, there are some critics who praise Strange Illusion as one of his best. Yet again, the copyright for this film was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.
19. Woman on the Run
According to reviewers, this is likely one of the best free film noir movies in the public domain. This film is headlined by Ann Sheridan (Angels With Dirty Faces) and Dennis O’Keefe (Brewster’s Millions). The copyright for Woman on the Run was never renewed and it fell into the public domain.
20. Big Town After Dark
This might not be the most popular film noir ever made, but most critics agreed it wasn’t terrible. Few of the actors ever starred in any particularly notable movies, but there were a few who managed to score decent roles. Big Town After Dark fell into the public domain because its copyright was not renewed.
Although this might not be a very well-known or beloved film noir, it features performances from a few excellent actors during their prime. Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity, The Apartment) and Raymond Burr (Rear Window, Godzilla) star in this potentially underrated title. Like many other movies on this list, Borderline fell into the public domain when its copyright was not renewed.
22. Danger Street
This might be one of the more unremarkable titles on our list of free film noir movies. That said, it’s hard to judge a movie too harshly when you don’t have to pay a dime to see it! Robert Lowery is one of the more notable stars of the film; fans might remember him as Batman in the Batman and Robin serials. As with many other movies from this era, the copyright for Danger Street was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.
23. Man in the Attic
If you’re familiar with the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, the story of this movie should be quite familiar. Of course, this is a different approach to the tale which was made for an audience that loved film noir. Jack Palance (City Slickers, Shane) stars as the main character Slade, who becomes a suspect for a series of murders. Once again this is a case where the film’s copyright was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.
24. The Second Woman
Although this movie isn’t particularly well-known, it has received decent reviews throughout the years since its release. This movie was billed as the next Rebecca, which is undoubtedly one of the best film noirs ever made. Like so many other movies from this era, it fell into the public domain because its copyright was not renewed.
25. Dark Mountain
This is another title written by Maxwell Shane (The Naked Street, Fear in the Night), and it was also critically panned upon release. Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin, Danger Street) also makes another appearance. This film also stars Regis Toomey (His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep) and Elisha Cook Jr (The Maltese Falcon, The Killing). As with most of the other titles on our list of free film noir movies, the copyright was not renewed and it fell into the public domain.
26. Inner Sanctum (1948)
This is yet another film based upon the book, radio, and film series called Inner Sanctum Mystery. However, unlike the previous movies which starred Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Tomb), this film did not feature many notable stars. Even so, this isn’t a poorly rated movie, so it should be somewhat enjoyable. Once again, this is another case where the copyright was not renewed and it became public domain as a result.
27. Shock (1946)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker (He Walked By Night) and starring Vincent Price (House of Haunted Hill, Laura), this film noir is fairly well-rated. While some critics took offense to depictions of mental illness in the film, others were somewhat impressed with the quality of the movie. The studios never renewed their copyright for Shock, and it has since become public domain.
28. Dishonored Lady
This is one of the more positively reviewed free film noir movies listed, and it’s not difficult to see why. Dishonored Lady was directed by Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks), and it stars Hedy Lamarr (The Strange Woman). As with so many other film noirs, this title fell into the public domain because its copyright was not renewed.
29. Lady Gangster
Speaking of noirs which feature strong or independent women, this is another title which is free to enjoy. In this case, the story focuses on a female gang leader. Although it’s not particularly well-reviewed, you might want to watch it for the performance of Faye Emerson (Between Two Worlds). Jackie Gleason (The Honeymooners) also has a minor role.
This is a case where we’re not sure why or how it’s in the public domain. That said, there is no record of a current copyright on file with the US Copyright Office.
30. Five Minutes to Live
Also known as Door-to-Door Maniac, this is actually a neo-noir film released in 1961. Cay Forester (D.O.A.) wrote and starred in the film. This was one of only two theatrical roles for Johnny Cash, who was much better known for his music.
Despite the star power, this movie was not well-received by critics. Even so, this film has become something of a cult classic since its release. Much like other free film noir movies, this one is in the public domain because its copyright was not renewed.
31. For You I Die
Although this isn’t the most notable film noir on our list, critics typically give the movie decent ratings. This film stars Cathy Downs (My Darling Clementine, The Dark Corner) and Paul Langton (The Big Knife, Twilight Zone). Yet again, this is another case where the studio forgot to renew their copyright for the film.
32. They Made Me a Killer
Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) wrote the script for this film noir. Unfortunately, critics didn’t immediately fall in love with this movie, and it fell into mediocrity. Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin, Dark Mountain) once again takes the lead for this movie. They Made Me a Killer became public domain when the copyright was not renewed.
33. Gambler’s Choice
This is yet another movie written by Maxwell Shane (Fear in the Night, Dark Mountain). Needless to say, he wrote a lot of film noir titles. This isn’t one of the highest rated free film noir movies, but most critics gave it a reasonable score. This movie has been in the public domain for many years because its copyright was not renewed.
34. Hollow Triumph
With an average rating of almost 7 stars, this is one of the better-reviewed titles on our list. Also known as The Scar, this movie stars and was directed by Paul Henreid (Casablanca). Henreid went uncredited as director of Hollow Triumph, which was technically his directorial debut.
35. Million Dollar Weekend
Although this movie isn’t very well-rated, it has received more positive criticism than negative. This was also the only film directed by Gene Raymond, who went on to have a great career in television. If you’re looking for more reasons to watch this movie, Charles Belden (House of Wax) wrote the script. Million Dollar Weekend is in the public domain because the copyright was not renewed.
This film noir was directed by none other than Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, Strange Illusion). While it’s not one of his more popular titles, it is in the public domain and free to enjoy. John Carradine (The Ten Commandments, Stagecoach) headlines the cast in what he later called his favorite performance.
37. Dangerous Passage
With a script by Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), this film noir is definitely worth a watch. It also doesn’t hurt that Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin) plays the lead role in this movie. As with many other films from this era, the copyright was not renewed and it became public domain.
38. The Man Who Cheated Himself
This is one of the better rated titles on our list of free film noir movies. Lee J. Cobb (12 Angry Men, The Exorcist), plays the detective trying to solve a dastardly crime. At the time, studio executives weren’t confident in this casting because of his former performance of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway. With a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it would appear the studios were wrong!
Resources For Public Domain Film Noir Movies
The film noir movement is special in that it is pretty much limited to a specific time period (1940-1960), and since they are all fairly old at this point, there’s usually a pretty good chance that they might be in the public domain.
Another factor to consider is that studios had no idea what home media would look like at the time, and the idea of releasing or broadcasting films on television was still a very new concept, so many studios didn’t bother to keep their copyright for movies of this era after the theatrical release.
That being said, a lot of movies that are in the public domain aren’t exactly advertised as such. Think about it, there are no movie studios in existence that would profit from advertising that some of their old films are actually free to watch legally without paying them a dime.
As a result, it’s difficult to prove which films are in the public domain. However, it’s not entirely impossible, and there are a few tools you can use to find more free film noir movies.
Of course, these websites alone won’t provide all the information you need to discover which movies are actually in the public domain. If you’re going to go searching for more, keep the following ideas in mind.
Avoid High Definition
We all love to watch movies in high definition, but the reality is that many modern remasters and prints of public domain movies are actually copyrighted. As such, they aren’t actually legal to watch for free. If you’re concerned about legality, stick to the video files that aren’t in high definition.
Stick With Old Movies
The older the film, the more likely it has fallen into the public domain. This is due to both the age of the film and the lack of concern that copyright holders had about any potential earnings for their movies after they left the theater. Stick with movies made before the 1970s and they’re much more likely to be legally free film noir movies.
Look Out For Home Video Logos
If the video file you’re looking at has a home video logo from a major studio, the print you’re watching might be copyrighted. To be extra careful, stick with video files that only have the film and lack bumpers of any kind.