LIKE THE OMINOUS FIGURE smoking cigarettes under the streetlight outside your window, Noir City is back. The Hollywood Theatre's three-day festival of all things hard and boiled features a well-curated selection of rare 35mm films. With the screenings introduced by noir historian Eddie Muller, this year's films focus on the grim, grimy decade following World War II.

The gem in the crown is 1946's Three Strangers (screens Sat Sept 20), which began life as a sequel to The Maltese Falcon but evolved into a proto-Coen brothers crime comedy (while retaining Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet). In a festival full of dangerous dames, Geraldine Fitzgerald comes away with the most delightfully vicious performance.

Another accessible entry is 1952's Deadline, USA (Fri Sept 19), which chronicles a valiant last stand against gangsterism by a dying newspaper under the gruff stewardship of Humphrey Bogart. While it lapses into maudlin, Sorkinesque sentimentality, it's still a fine old tribute to American newsmen (and notably, women).

The wild card is 1951's The Prowler (Sun Sept 21), which novelist James Ellroy gave the pull quote of the century when he dubbed it "a masterpiece of sexual creepiness, institutional corruption, and suffocating, ugly passion." (Fair warning: He also noted "you will need antidepressants, booze, drugs, and bleak anonymous sex after you see this movie.")

Other notable mentions include 1950's The Breaking Point (Fri Sept 19), an adaptation of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not that features well-drawn characters and high-stakes gunplay, and 1948's Larceny (Sat Sept 20), an engaging con caper in which the grifters are all absolute dirtbags.

If there's one lesson to be found here, it's that noir wasn't relegated to private eyes and women with unusually long legs. There's 100 different hard choices on the screen in this festival, and all of them go a little bit wrong. You wouldn't want to live in Noir City, but it's a nice place to visit.