Sometimes movies slip into the public domain, somewhere in the world. The legal frameworks differ from country to country, so what may be in the public domain in one country may not be so in another. Whatever may be the case, the Internet Archive stores a multitude of movies (as well as books and other material) that are in the public domain in the US. Luckily, they are accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Obviously the cinematic quality varies from entry to entry, but it would be wrong to assume that they’re all crap. No doubt some/many are. However, besides a considerable amount of wonderful silent movies, the Internet Archive offers quite a few top-quality talkies as well, for instance, Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945) based on the classic Agatha Christie novel, Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) featuring Barbara Stanswyck, D.O.A. (1950) featuring Edmond O’Brien, Charade (1963) with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) featuring the best of the zombies, Horror Express (1972) with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, as well as several of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood titles, such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. It’s an odd feeling seeing such extraordinary titles in the public domain. But there they are.
Here’s a selection of 30 titles, some good, some bad:
The 39 Steps 1935
One of Hitchcock’s best-loved movies. As many of his films, it’s about a man who is falsely accused of murder. He gets caught in a deadly spy game trying to clear himself. It features Robert Donat as a suave hero, and Madeleine Carroll as the woman who inadvertently ens up helping him. This is one of Hitchcock’s absolutely best movies.
The Lady Vanishes 1938
Another Hitchcock classic, featuring Margaret Lockwood and (a somewhat dull) Michael Redgrave. On a long train journey, Lockwood befriends an older woman who later just vanishes into thin air. Curiously, no one on the train can even remember ever having seen her. Suspense and mystery follows. A must-see Hitchcock classic.
His Girl Friday 1940
Classic American screwball comedy featuring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The Grant plays a newspaper editor bent on keeping his star reporter (Russell) on his staff. She, however, has decided to leave her career and marry an insurance salesman instead. Fast-paced and funny.
The Adventures of Tartu 1943
This is quite a jolly WW2 spy flick featuring Robert Donat as some kind of über-cool proto-James Bond. He plays a British Captain who is sent behind enemy lines into Checzoslovakia on a sabotage mission, with the purpose of blowing up a factory. The version available at the Internet Archive is a US edit of an originally British film known as Sabotage agent. Apparently the US edit is quite different from the original UK one. But as I haven’t seen the original, I don’t know which is better. The US edit is in any event damned entertaining. The production values alone raise this movie to A-list material. And how could any movie featuring Donat as a suave spy be bad!
And Then There Were None 1945
This is the ultimate movie version of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel. Ten people are trapped on a remote island, and they are killed off one by one. But who is the murderer? The actors are all stellar, delivering their well-written dialogues impecably. The camera work is exceptional and daring. (For a long time, I was convinced Alfred Hithcock had directed this.) The movie is worthwhile watching even when you know who the murderer is. I’ve seen it several times, and I enjoy it just as much every time. It’s simply a darned good movie.
The Stranger 1946
An almost forgotten Orson Wells classic, featuring the director himself as an escaped Nazi war criminal and Edward G. Robinson as the detective who is hunting him. It develops into a very suspenseful cat-and-mouse game in a small town somewhere in America. This is a great noir film.
Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946
Another highly enjoyable film noir. This one features Barbara Stanswyck, playing a rich business woman who built her vast empire with the inheritance she got as a young child after accidentally killing her domineering aunt. In her youth, she once tried to run away with a boy she loved, but the humourless aunt put a stop to that, leading to a fight in which the aunt was killed. The boy disappeared, and Stanswyck’s character eventually married another boy instead. Eighteen years later, the boy she once loved returns, now a grown man. Drama, tension, and suspicions follow. Even though the music can be a bit over-bearing sometimes, this is a really good noir film.
This is classic must-see film noir. It’s one of those movies everyone should see, at least once. It starts with a man stumbling into a police station. He starts to tell the story of how he was murdered. Brilliant set-up! The movie is then told in flashbacks, and it never gets boring.
Rocketship X-M 1950
This one’s about a rocket aimed for the moon, but which inadvertently lands on Mars instead. There the crew stumbles on a savage people intent on killing them. The movie isn’t very good. The story drags endlessly, but at least it lacks the traditional Hollywood ending, making the final scene(s) somewhat tolerable.
Cyrano de Bergerac 1950
Classic dramatisation of a classic novel, featuring Jose Ferrer. The story is set in 17th-century France, and is about a swordsman with a big nose and a poetic mind, who helps an annoying and shallow-minded fellow swordsman to get the girl of his own dreams. The book has been filmed many times, and ought to be familiar to most. This 1950-version is still generally regarded as one of the best. And it certainly is.
This consists of three separate stories all featuring James and Pamela Mason. The first story is a murder mystery set in Paris involving a murderer and the one witness who can frame him. The second involves an unusual duel between two 19th-century Austrian officers. The third is about a rich man bored with his wealth, so he tries on a variety of nobody-jobs during which he falls madly in love. The stories are all well-acted (it’s James Mason after all), and there’s a pace and charm to the whole proceedings that makes this a very enjoyable watch.
Cat Women of the Moon 1953
In this mind-numbingly dull space adventure, a group of astronauts lands on the moon. There they find a hostile community of telepathic women in tight, black suits. It’s awful. Really, really awful.
This one features Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden. It starts with a group of assassins, led by Sinatra’s character, who take hold of a house in a small town, through which the US president is scheduled to pass. They keep several people hostage, including the local sheriff, played by Hayden. It is suspenseful and dramatic all the way through. A very good film.
Italian fantasy tale inspired by the ancient myths about Hercules and Jason & the Argonauts. It stars former bodybuilder Steve Reeves as Hercules in what might have been a very dull b-movie indeed. However, it’s surprisingly good. The production values are excellent. The dubbed dialogue is well-written and well-read, and all the actors do a splendid job. The movie spawned nearly 20 other similar fantasy adventures involving Hercules, though only a few of them featured Steve Reeves. This, the first one, is quite likely the best of them all, and well worth watching.
A Bucket of Blood 1959
An awkward young man inadvertently kills a cat. He hides the dead cat by covering it in clay, which immediately becomes hailed as a masterpiece of sculpture (though no one knows there’s a dead cat inside). He becomes the talk of the town, thus rising quickly from a nobody to a somebody. In order to keep his newly-found success, and create further pieces of art, he must also continue killing. The movie was made by Roger Corman. It’s filled with dark humour, great camera work and a splendid musical score by jazz-composer Fred Katz. Even though the movie drags a little bit here and there, it’s well worth the watch.
The Phantom Planet 1961
This one’s about an astronaut who lands on an asteroid. There he encounters a race of very tiny people. He himself becomes minituarised and comes to learn a lot about the little people and their life on the asteroid. There’s also a duel, a little romance, a vicious monster, and a battle with other space aliens. It has good dialogue, and is quite well made, disregading some ruddy special effects a la Classic Dr Who, incl. the obligatory man in a rubber suit. I liked this one a lot.
This Is Not A Test 1962
This feels almost like an early American version of the 1970s Survivors TV series. It’s about a bunch of people who are stopped by a lone police officer at a road block in the middle of nowhere. At first they aren’t told why, and the police officer doesn’t seem to know himself. He simply follows orders he receives over the radio. To their horror, it transpires after a while that there’s an impending nuclear attack. Apparently the US is being attacked by someone, presumably the Soviet. The roadblocked people have to fend for themselves and try to avoid being perished in the forthcoming nuclear blast. It’s very dark and atmospheric. Despite the occasional dull acting, it’s brilliant and has a stellar ending.
Besides being a delightful romantic comedy, this film is also a solid twist-turning suspense thriller, indeed one of the best. Audrey Hepburn is fantastic in it (as if she could be anything else!) and Cary Grant does a very good "Is he good? Is he bad?" kind of guy. The main villains are funny as well as menacing. The plot and the twists are well played out, as is the climax of the film. There’s also a hilariously funny funeral scene. The movie is a real joy to watch, from beginning to end.
The Strangler 1964
In this, Victor Buono plays a lonely man fascinated by dolls and domineered by his ill mother. In-between visits with his mother, he stalks and strangles random women that anger him, while the police try desperately to catch him. The movie is apparently based on the infamous Boston Strangler. It’s very good, suspenseful and quite creepy (esp. Buono’s portrayal of the strangler). Comes highly recommended.
Bloody Pit of Horror 1965
What can I say. This horrible, horrible movie is about a bunch of people who find themselves stranded in a castle. They get killed off one by one by a crazy man in a mask. One woman is killed in a huge spider web, while others perish in a torture chamber of some sort. It’s not a movie I’ll watch again. Nor would I want to recommend it to anyone. The acting is awful, the dialogue is awful, the whole plot is awful. The sets are nice, though.
Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet 1965
This is about a space mission to Venus. The rocket crash lands, and the crew must be rescued by another rocket already in orbit, but not before they explore the planet during which they encounter various troubles. The movie ends somewhat mysteriously without offering any proper answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The movie is actually quite watchable, though hardly a masterpiece. The American voice-overs (the film is dubbed) are monotone and uninspiring, but with the dull colour palette of the whole movie, perhaps this was intentional
(The movie is credited to one Harrington, but he’s only responsible for some parts of the film. It began its life in 1962 already, when a Russian movie maker named Klushantsev filmed a sci-fi adventure titled Planeta Bur. Harrington took/stole the Russian footage, added American voices in place of the Russian ones, and shot some extra scenes featuring, for instance, Basil Rathbone. Thus a "new", American film was created. A few years later, Bogdanovich did to Harrington’s movie what Harrington had done to Klushantsev’s movie. That is, he took Harrington’s version, cut away Harrington’s footage, added his own scenes, edited it a bit, and released it with a new title, Voyage to the planet of the prehistoric women; see next entry below.)
Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women 1968
This is Bogdanovitch’s version of the Russian Planeta Bur, originally filmed in 1962 by Klushantsev (see entry above). Bogdanovich deleted all of Harrington’s footage, and replaced it with some of his own, most/all of which involve a group of tighly-dressed young, beautiful women acting as antagonists to the stranded astronauts. Bogdanovich kept the dull voice-overs, however, so the dubbed lines here are as bad as they are in Harrington’s version. Nonetheless, the plot comes of as slightly better here, and differs considerably from the previous versions. The astronauts crash land on Venus, encountering barren lands, bad weather and monsters. They eventually find a statue and realise there might be a higher civilisation there somewhere, which there also is, and this is where Bogdanovich’s footage comes in. The Venusians turn out to be long-haired mermaids with telepatic powers and both legs intact. It sounds corny, I admit, but it plays out really well. It certainly isn’t as bad as it sounds. It has a dark and somber atmosphere that’s rather appealing in fact.
Night of the Living Dead 1968
This is George Romero’s classic, original zombie movie. Due to some form of cosmic radiation, corpses rise up and start walking the earth as zombies, and they feel peckish for some human flesh. A terrified group of strangers find themselves locked inside a small house, where they fight of the zombie attacks. However, dangers lurk inside the house, too. This is still one of the best zombie movies ever made, and it’s quite amazing to find it in the public domain. It’s a definite must-see.
The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant 1971
This is a horribly boring sci-fi adventure starring Bruce Dern. Not even he could save this fiasco of a film. He plays a scientist who transplants the head of maniacal murderer onto the body of a half-wit, thus creating a two-headed evil creature, which naturally goes on the rampage. It’s terribly dull and boring. Watching this mess is a complete waste of time.
Horror Express 1972
Christopher Lee plays an anthropologist who digs up the remains of what he believes to be the missing link (between man and ape). He takes the excavated creature onto a train, where he is accompanied by Peter Cushing. As could be expected, the creature turns out to be alive, runs loose on the train, and it all becomes very menacing when it also turns out that the creature can kill simply by gazing straight into a victims eyes. There’s very little not to like in this movie. The plot is well paced and consistent. It has great acting and well-delivered dialogue from a variety of charismatic actors. The music score is lovely. The sets are beautiful and the atmosphere is claustrophobic. There’s not a single moment of dullness in the entire movie.
Dead People / Messiah of Evil 1973
This movie starts with a young woman arriving at a distant town in search of her father, who seems to have gone missing. No one in the little town appears to know anything, or else they’re just unwilling to tell. The first 15 minutes feel a bit disjointed, but then it picks up, and becomes a real joy to watch. It turns out to be a zombie movie. Well, sort of. The zombies don’t actually behave like traditional Romero-zombies. Instead they seem to be some sort of werewolf-zombie combinations. They growl, they have teeth and they jump around. There are two really cool death-scenes in it. One occurs in a supermarket, the other in a cinema. Nicely staged, scored, acted and brilliantly shot. These scenes could easily have become classics had they appeared in a more well-known movie. In fact, I’d never heard of this movie before, which surprised me a lot, as it’s quite good (as far as b-movies go).
Invasion of the Bee Girls 1973
The movie starts with some mysterious deaths. It turns out that men die in love-making sessions, and we later find out that the women they make love to hizz and turn into killer bees. Yes, it’s just as bad as it sounds, except we do get to see a lot of naked breasts (if you like that sort of thing). The acting, especially from the female lead, is annoyingly bad, and the dialogue is abysmal.
Lady Frankenstein 1974
Baron Frankenstein (played by Joseph Cotten, no less) is keen to give life to corpses. In fact, he has devoted his entire adult life to that very aim. It turns out he has a daughter who shares his interests, and when the Baron is killed by one of his own creations, his daughter decides to continue her father’s work. It sounds a little dull, to be honest, but for some odd reason I found myself enjoying this quite a bit. There’s a nice atmosphere to it, and the actors are all very charismatic. The dialogue isn’t too dull either.
Naked Massacre / Born in Hell 1976
This is about a war-torn soldier killing a house full of nurses. It has a very eerie atmosphere, and while it’s watchable, it isn’t very good. I don’t think I’ll watch it again.
Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning 2005
This is one of the oddest films ever made. It’s a Finnish sci-fi adventure, parodying both Star Trek and Babylon 5. It centers around a space crew stranded on Earth, led by Capt. Pirk. After a while, they manage to build a new spaceship, the CPP Kickstart, and begin a quest to conquer the Universe. The movie was made with a very small budget, apparently, but that doesn’t show. It looks and feels like a big-budget movie rich with CGI. The dialogue is entirely in Finnish, so unfortunately many of the word plays are lost in the English subtitles. That notwithstanding, it is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long long time, and a definite must-see for all sci-fi fans.