ONE OF THE MAJOR TROPES of film noir is that the past is inescapable: No matter how far you try to run, what you've done will catch up with you. So it's both fitting and ironic that the noir aesthetic would survive this far into the future. Its continued popularity ensures its history never dissipates, even as the clocks perpetually run out for its antiheroes.

For anyone looking for a genre crash course in noir, you couldn't do better than "Dangerous Desire: Film Noir Classics," a four-weekend festival at the Northwest Film Center. They'll be showing a dozen films, spanning 1942 to 1954, and featuring many rare gems not available on DVD.

Of the series, the most well-known are probably 1946's The Blue Dahlia and 1942's The Glass Key, both featuring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. The blond stars make an attractive duo and have a knack for the rapid-fire patter that's the hallmark of the best noir. (The Blue Dahlia also has the added attraction of a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe.)

The remaining 10 movies offer a surprisingly atypical bounty likely to impress even the most devoted noir aficionados: The best of the lot are Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951), the story of a skeevy cop making a move on the victim of a peeping tom, and Phil Karlson's 99 River Street (1953), a multilayered wrong-man scenario: John Payne plays an ex-boxer turned cab driver who's the lead suspect when his cheating wife turns up dead. The web of circumstance grows more intricate, threatening to strangle the schnook before he can find the real killer.

"Dangerous Desires" has many similar scenarios of men making the wrong choices and ending up on the hook, be it John Garfield as the con man who falls for his mark in Nobody Lives Forever (1946) or Dick Powell as a two-timing insurance investigator in Pitfall (1948). Slightly off model is the intense The Window (1949), featuring Disney-mainstay Bobby Driscoll as the pint-sized witness to a murder no one will believe happened.

Other must-sees include the Max Ophüls-directed Caught (1949) and the 1954 Sterling Hayden vehicle The Naked Alibi. Whichever pictures you choose, you're guaranteed a night of tough dudes, deadly dames, rainy streets, and good old-fashioned American cynicism. Sit through enough of them, and there's a strong possibility you'll leave the theater talking in clipped sentences, ready with a backhand slap for anyone who dares answer back.