Every week, this site does its best to point you in the direction of movies worth your time that are streaming on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and the like. But what about those who aren’t ponying up the ten or 20 bucks a month for those services? Well, there’s an overabundance of free movies streaming at this very moment as well — many of them legally (it seems!), thanks our old friend “the public domain,” whereby films whose copyright has lapsed (or never existed in the first place) can be made available for public consumption. Others are hosted gratis by services that simply want to share the wealth of great cinema. Whatever the case, with an awareness of how much everyone loves free stuff, here are 50 free movies that are well worth a watch. Clear your schedule accordingly.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece isn’t just a spellbinding tale of crime, truth, and honor; it also rewrote the rules for narrative, its innovative use of multiple points of view making its title a go-to reference called up by everyone from Roger Ebert to Homer Simpson.
Director Fritz Lang and star Peter Lorre were at the peak of their powers when they teamed for this terrifying 1931 story of the hunt for a child killer. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation, and an easy film to dissect academically and analyze in terms of not only its aesthetic innovations, but also its rich subtextual commentary on Germany in the early 1930s. But there’s more it to it than that. Too often, great films like this one are thought of as objects under glass in a museum, rather than works of art that live and breathe. Lang’s film isn’t just an airless “classic”; it’s a visceral, disturbing picture that burrows under your skin and settles in.
A small computer screen and a compressed video file aren’t exactly optimum viewing conditions for Andrei Tarkovsky’s stunning blend of science fiction and art film. But it’ll do in a pinch; Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel is long, difficult, beautiful, and richly rewarding. (Part two here.)
His Girl Friday
The ultimate newspaper comedy finds ethically challenged editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) pulling every dirty trick he can come up with to keep ace reporter — and ex-wife — Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) from abandoning his paper and settling down with dull fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). The dialogue crackles, the pace is breakneck, and Howard Hawks’s direction was seldom leaner; no wonder this is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies.
Cary Grant again, in a romantic adventure comedy from director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) that is often mistaken for the work of Alfred Hitchcock. That’s not just due to the presence of Hitch fave Grant in the leading role; Donen’s got a light, sophisticated touch that’s just perfect for this Parisian charmer. (Remade — and not terribly well — by Jonathan Demme in 2002 as The Truth About Charlie.)
With Richard Linklater’s latest movie Before Midnight collecting well-deserved raves, it’s a fine time to look back at his breakthrough feature. This low-budget 1991 comedy helped work its title into the vernacular and launch Austin as a center for indie filmmaking. But the movie holds up as well as its legacy; it’s a low-key treat that eschews conventional plotting to loosely shamble from one oddball character to the next — all of them verbose, peculiar, and very funny.
One False Move
A young writer/actor named Billy Bob Thornton made his first big splash with this riveting 1992 indie from director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time). Cross-cutting between the getaway of three criminals and the small-town sheriff (Bill Paxton) awaiting their arrival, One False Move broaches issues of race, class, and urban life seldom touched by even the most thoughtful of indies — and it’s a helluva good crime thriller to boot.
And speaking of crime thrillers, many of Alfred Hitchcock’s early, British films are public domain titles, which means it’s easy to get an education in Hitch without spending a dime. This 1929 crime story is a great place to start — his first talkie, it concerns a shopkeeper’s daughter who murders a would-be rapist and tries to cover her tracks. Full of terrific Hitchcock set pieces, the most deservedly famous a wonderful scene where an innocent discussion of a bread knife is exaggerated, in our protagonist’s head, into a horrifying, non-stop accusation. (This embed also includes another early Hitchcock feature, Easy Virtue.)
The Lady Vanishes
Blackmail, while enjoyable, is more than a little clumsy (as most early talkies were). If you really wanna see Hitch hitting his stride, queue up this 1938 comedy/mystery, in which an elderly train passenger seems to disappear completely — and a scrappy young rich girl determines to get to the bottom of it. Breezy, snappy, elegant fun.
The 39 Steps
This may well be your prototypical Hitchcock film: the beautiful mystery woman, the innocent man wrongly accused, love on the run, and a MacGuffin that Hitch can barely be bothered with. It’s masterfully executed and tremendous fun (watch how Hitch dramatizes a nightmare even more common than false accusation: public speaking). This may be the best of his British output.
The sometimes shady, always tossed-together financing arrangements of Orson Welles’s later pictures make his filmography remarkably accessible on YouTube, Archive.org, and other free sites; this 1946 mystery was one of his few out-and-out financial successes at the time of its release, and while its post-WWII story isn’t exactly his most timeless, there are plenty of vintage Welles touches here to please admirers.
The Criterion Collection did its best to curb the endless crappy public domain dupes of Welles’s 1955 mystery — and to clear up the confusion over its many alternate versions — with their 2006 set The Complete Mr. Arkadin. But you can still watch it for free on their Hulu channel, and it’s a fascinating work, in which Welles returns to the antiheroic tendencies and narrative loop-the-loops of Citizen Kane. He hardly matches his earlier masterpiece, but that doesn’t diminish this moody, tasty B-movie riff.
Chimes at Midnight
One more Welles — this one less the object of a lapsed copyright than a seemingly endless battle over rights (which is keeping much of his later work out of public sight). This 1966 Spanish/Swiss co-production was released in the U.K. as Falstaff, and is a fascinating mash-up of that character’s scenes from several different Shakespeare plays (including both parts of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). It’s the role Welles was born to play, and he performs it accordingly; the film also features excellent supporting turns by the likes of John Gielgud and Jeanne Moreau, and an utterly astonishing battle sequence. The film is still tied up in a legal battle between its many producers and the Welles estate, and it has never been released domestically on DVD, so this YouTube video is one of the few ways American viewers can see one of Welles’s finest works.
A Matter of Life and Death
This 1946 fantasy from directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (titled Stairway to Heaven for its US release) is another one that doesn’t quite get the proper treatment on a computer screen — particularly when it comes to the luminous Three-Strip Technicolor photography. But it’s not just a visual feast; this is a lovely emotional examination of life and afterlife. Plus, it’s one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films, and if that’s not a high enough recommendation, nothing is.
Director David Lean wasn’t always crafting large-scale epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago; early on, his films were small and personal, though no less emotionally vast. One of the best was this 1946 adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, which won two Oscars (and was up for three more). Lean followed it with another Dickens adaptation, his lovely 1948 take on Oliver Twist.
Fear and Desire
Stanley Kubrick’s very first feature was, for decades, impossible to see legally; in the years after its minimal release, following the bankruptcy of its producers, the reclusive filmmaker did his best to take the film — which he considered “a bumbling amateur exercise” — out of circulation. Bootlegs and YouTube streams like this were about the only way for Kubrick completists to view the picture, and though it finally saw a proper restoration and DVD/Blu-ray release last year, the film remains in the public domain — and still provides a compelling peek at a great filmmaker in his embryonic state.
Dark Side of the Moon
Another treat for Kubrick fans, this 2002 mockumentary by French filmmaker William Karel takes the popular conspiracy theory (recently posited in Room 237) that the filmmaker secretly helped stage the Apollo moon landing and ingeniously claims to “prove” it via deceptive editing of interviews with real figures, and staged interviews with fake ones (cleverly named after characters from Kubrick and Hitchcock films). Of course, this kind of thing is bound to backfire: real moon “truthers” have since quoted from and re-appropriated the film as “proof” of their theories.
And here’s a Kubrick movie that almost was: the filmmaker was originally hired to direct Sam Peckinpah’s screenplay adaptation of Charles Neider’s novel, though both men were ultimately replaced by writer Guy Trosper and Brando himself, directing for the first and last time. The film was a flop on its release in 1961, but has subsequently been championed as a complex and nuanced Western that predicted the genre’s reinvention in the two decades that followed.
B-movie king Roger Corman — best known for quickies like The Little Shop of Horrors and The Terror — never misses an opportunity to talk about how this 1962 drama (starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner) was his only film that ever lost money. But it’s also one of his few that genuinely holds up, a remarkably timely and uncomfortably candid look at race relations and small-town fear.
The Blue Angel
One of Hollywood’s most celebrated collaborations of the 1930s was that of director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich, and it began with this 1930 German vehicle for star Emil Jannings. It would also prove one of his most poignant vehicles, telling the tragic story of a respectable man succumbing to madness.
Another German masterpiece — this one a year older, coming at the end of the country’s remarkable silent era. Filmmaker G.W. Pabst lured Hollywood contract player Louise Brooks away from the States to star in this raw, lurid, and powerful story of a seductive young woman and the men who crumble around her. Brooks is a remarkable performer, her offhand sensuality and naturalistic acting style years ahead of its time, and though it may date to the silent era, Pandora’s Box maintains its power to shock and bewitch.
Director Sergei Eisenstein was, in many ways, writing the rules of cinema in this 1925 Russian film — propaganda, sure, but also a vital step in the evolution of the theory of montage and the crafting of a cinematic language. The famed “Odessa Steps” sequence was so blunt and powerful that it’s still being quoted (and parodied).
The first, and still one of the creepiest, of all cinematic vampires was Count Orlock, the horrifying vampire brought to life by Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s unofficial 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau’s moody lighting and striking compositions remain as effective as ever, but the real attraction is Schreck’s performance — one so disturbing that it inspired a film of its own, the 2000 horror drama Shadow of the Vampire, which posited that Schreck was, himself, a bloodsucker.
Night of the Living Dead
Like Nosferatu, here’s a horror classic that begat countless imitations but few equals. Director George A. Romero was a successful industrial and commercial filmmaker from Pittsburgh who convinced his colleagues and pals to help him make a no-frills horror movie for fun; the stark, black-and-white film captured the dread wafting through the air circa 1968 (when it was first released), its implicit commentary on Vietnam and race relations combining with the flat, documentary-style photography to create a film more uncomfortably close to real life than the average creature feature.
Carnival of Souls
Many see the blueprint for Romero’s film in this 1962 cult classic, which mostly went ignored upon its original release but subsequently found an audience on television and video (particularly once it fell into the public domain). Shot in three weeks with a cast of unknowns in Salt Lake City and Lawrence, Kansas, director Herk Harvey’s organ-scored ode to dread and solitude maintains its freaky power, which clearly served as an inspiration to Eraserhead-era David Lynch.
The Driller Killer
Director Abel Ferrera, who would later helm such gritty slices of New York life as Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, made his breakthrough with this grisly little cult item from 1979, in which he also stars as a frustrated young artist who takes to the streets of his neighborhood with a power drill. The filmmaking is rough (to say the least), but the film’s grimy energy is palpable, and the views of vintage NYC are priceless.
Filmmaker Tod Browning used his considerable cachet following the smash success of his 1931 adaptation of Dracula to get the go-ahead for this passion project, which came out the following year and promptly buried him. But this vivid, nightmarish look at life under the big top has since become a widely praised cult classic, continuing to disturb generation after generation of viewers.
The Last Man on Earth
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend was recently the basis for a Will Smith vehicle, but before that, Vincent Price took to the streets and hunted vampires in a barren wasteland, via this 1964 adaptation from directors Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow. A crisp, chilling, and sharp thriller, with a stripped-down and quite effective leading turn by Mr. Price.
There’s a treasure trove of free film noir out there, the result of the genre’s presence among second-tier “Poverty Row” studios that often didn’t bother crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, copyright-wise. There’s no better place to start than with this no-budget wonder from 1945, directed by prolific craftsman Edgar G. Ulmer and shot quickly and cheaply, but with the kind of tough nihilism that seldom made its way into studio pictures of the era. Short (only 68 minutes), tough, and nastily efficient.
Another great noir, with a juicy premise: an accountant has been given a slow-acting poison, and must thus act fast to solve his own murder. Cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Maté cranks the shadowy atmosphere up to 11; star Edmond O’Brien is a pitch-perfect noir schnook. Remade (not terribly cogently) in 1988, with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.
Okay, just one more great old noir: M director Fritz Lang and The Stranger star Edward G. Robinson (see how easy the connections get?) team up for this story of an office drone who’s looking for a little excitement, and the bad girl who gives him more than he bargained for.
Terror by Night
You can keep your Cumberbatches and Downey Juniors and Johnny Lee Millers: us movie buffs know that there’s only one true Sherlock Holmes, and his name is Basil Rathbone. Several films in the classic Universal Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series are available on free streaming services, but this viewer has always been partial to this late entry, a crisp, taut picture which finds our heroes solving a jewel theft and murder on a train (shades of The Lady Vanishes).
Beat the Devil
One of the oddest films in the filmography of either director John Huston or star Humphrey Bogart, this 1953 picture (written by Truman Capote, who reportedly wrote it day-by-day during production) manages to both embrace its adventure and noir elements and send them up, resulting in a kind of straight-faced parody that critics of the period were unsurprisingly unsure how to deal with.
The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick recently wrote about YouTube “exclusives” — films unavailable via official channels, due to lack of interest, controversial elements, or (as with Chimes at Midnight) rights disputes, but freely streaming on YouTube, seemingly without the objections of those involved. He recommends this 1944 noir, never even shown on American television (much less released on DVD), starring Deanna Durbin as a New Orleans prostitute and Gene Kelly as her unbalanced estranged husband.
Once in a Lifetime
Another welcome tip from the Lumenick article is this 1932 adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s uproarious stage comedy. It hilariously examines that bumpy moment when Hollywood suddenly had to start talking — thus making the film a spiritual forerunner to Singin’ in the Rain, albeit one written in the midst of that transition.
My Man Godfrey
Gregory La Cava’s 1936 film is a sparkling screwball treat, a Depression-era charmer in which a spoiled rich girl (the incomparable Carole Lombard) learns a thing or two about life and love from the elegant homeless gent (William Powell, never better) she picks up on a scavenger hunt.
Most of Buster Keaton’s silent features — all of them perfect or close to it — can be easily found online, but you’d be hard pressed to come up with a vintage comedy more delightful than this one, which packs endless laughs and startling cleverness into its brief, 45-minute running time. This brilliant meta-comedy concerns a movie projectionist, unlucky in love, who nods off in the booth and steps into the film he’s projecting; the film-within-a-film, and the characters’ interaction with it, inspired everyone from Woody Allen to Mel Brooks. Keaton would make grander pictures (The General leaps to mind), but he rarely made one that was this much sheer fun.
Charles Chaplin labored something like a year — an eternity in the crank-‘em-out era of the early ‘20s — on his first feature-length comedy as writer/director/star, and in the process, created the template for the rest of his career: a healthy portion of big laughs, a splash of pathos, a pinch of tears. The work of little Jackie Coogan (later Uncle Fester on The Addams Family) in the title role is stunning; the separation of the kid and the Little Tramp remains one of the most heartbreaking sequences in all of cinema.
The Gold Rush
Four years later, Chaplin headed to Truckee, California to create what may be his most perfect comedy. This story of prospectors in the Yukon is filled with classic Chaplin sequences: the eating of the boot, the dance of the rolls, and (most memorably) a cabin that is perched ever-so-precariously on edge of a cliff. Though Chaplin himself scored and narrated a re-release in 1942, this original, silent version remains far superior.
Kung Fu Hustle
The leap from Chaplin and Keaton to Stephen Chow isn’t as abrupt as you might think — Chow’s energetic mash-up of martial arts, gangster movies, and slapstick comedy owes much to Chaplin and (especially) Keaton, often by way of Looney Tunes.
Road to Bali
Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour co-starred in seven of the so-called “Road” pictures between 1940 and 1962, and luckily, the public domain Road to Bali is one of the best. It was the second to last in the series, so the format was set: broad spoofs of current movie tropes, coupled with meta-commentary on the stars and their studios, and fourth wall-breaking a-plenty. (Possibly the movie’s best line is delivered by Hope straight into camera: “[Crosby]’s gonna sing, folks. Now’s the time to go out and get the popcorn.”)
Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film
In the late 1970s, British filmmakers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill went to Hollywood. Their mission was to make the definitive account of the silent era, and there was a sense of urgency: they wanted to interview as many participants as possible, before it was too late. The result is a magnificent history, illustrated with remarkable stories and numerous clips; the sheer volume of those clips and the difficulty of clearing them for subsequent use is reportedly why we have yet to see a proper DVD release of the series. In the meantime, all the episodes are available on YouTube, and are ready to be cherished. (Links to full series here).
A Brief History of Time
The great Errol Morris followed up the critical and commercial success of The Thin Blue Line with this mesmerizing 1991 effort, which serves as both a film adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s seminal work and a profile of the man himself. It was released on VHS but has inexplicably never made its way to DVD. Morris claims a release is in the works, but this YouTube version will do in the meantime; as usual, the visuals are hypnotic and the Philip Glass score is remarkable, while Hawking’s theories are explained in such a way that they’re almost understandable for those of us who don’t have PhDs.
Eat the Document
ABC commissioned a documentary about Bob Dylan’s notorious 1966 UK tour, but when Dylan decided to direct and edit it himself (rather than turning it over to Don’t Look Back director D.A. Pennebaker), the network turned the film down flat, claiming it was too weird for a television audience. They may have been right, but the film — which has never been properly released in theaters, or on television or home video — is a fascinating account of that controversial time.
It Might Get Loud
Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is built around a filmed meeting on January 28, 2008, during which “three musicians came together to discuss the electric guitar.” Those three were Led Zeppelin guitar god Jimmy Page, U2’s brilliant lead guitarist The Edge, and White Stripes/Raconteurs frontman Jack White (who confesses, on the way, that he plans “to trick these guys into teaching me all of their tricks”). Observing the trio playing, listening, and talking shop, we reflect that it’s rare to observe this kind of powwow between skilled artists and craftsmen — it’s tough to beat the look on White’s and Edge’s faces as they watch Page play the signature riff from “Whole Lotta Love.” In that scene, and in the finest moments of the film, we are reminded that true musicianship is not just about playing music, but hearing it and understanding it and, above all, adoring it; it is only then that, as White says, you can become a member of “that family of storytellers.” It Might Get Loud is a love letter to that family, and from it.
The Chinese Connection
If you’re a Bruce Lee fan, the public domain DVD labels and streaming sites are a real minefield; you can spend days clicking through the countless Bruce Les and Bruce Leis and Dragon Leighs and so on. But a couple films by the genuine article are out there — chief among them this 1972 film from director Lo Wei, also known as Fist of Fury.
The Street Fighter
But if your kung fu tastes run a little rougher, there’s always Sonny Chiba. The Street Fighter — best known to American audiences as the film Clarence and Alabama see on their first date in True Romance — was released in 1974, and was instantly notorious for its extreme violence, which led to the film’s X rating.
Five Minutes to Live
Everybody loves Johnny Cash, and there’s plenty of free documentaries streaming for fans. Here’s a more interesting oddity: the 1961 crime drama (also known as Door-to-Door Maniac) in which Cash stars as a tough bank robber and kidnapper, alongside Vic Tayback (aka Mel from Alicei) and little Ronnie Howard.
Cannibal! The Musical
Okay, maybe “great” is a stretch. But the low-budget first feature from South Park’s Trey Parker (who wrote, directs, co-produces, and stars) and Matt Stone (who co-produces and co-stars) offers an intriguing look at the early years of comedy’s most provocative duo, as they turn their pre-Book of Mormon musical-theatre inclinations towards the seemingly incongruous story of prospector and accused cannibal Alfred Packer.
And in closing out this trot through the riches of great free movies, it’s worth noting that some movies are well worth your attention that fall squarely outside of greatness — in fact, some movies fell into public domain because there wasn’t much there to protect, yet they’ll more than do for a few late-night laughs at the expense of an incompetent filmmaker. So don’t pass up the opportunity to watch Ed Wood’s immortal Plan 9 From Outer Space, or maybe the all-little-people Western nightmare The Terror of Tiny Town, or perhaps the stern VD warning Sex Madness. But this viewer’s favorite has always been Reefer Madness. Made in 1936 with the financing of a church group and intended as a serious morality tale (its original title was Tell Your Children), it warns us of how one puff of the demon weed turns the smoker into a deranged lunatic, drawn to bad music, insane dancing, illicit sex, suicide, and even murder. The whole thing is deathly solemn yet unintentionally hilarious; it also serves as a potent reminder of how hard it is to make a genuinely good movie, making one appreciate the other 40-some movies on this list all the more.
[h/t to Open Culture, where you can find many, many more free movies.]