Over my time authoring Top 10 Tuesdays (or Thursdays if your editor is slow!) for OWF, I’ve submitted a couple of articles chronicling the best full-length films available to watch online (Part I and Part II). My attention focused on YouTube’s offerings in these previous lists, but today I turn to the Internet Archive. This site is dedicated to offering the general public as much content as possible – whether it’s live concerts, television shows or indeed feature films – for free viewing/listening or download. As I’ve previously mentioned, this content is in the Public Domain, which means the reproduction and offers of free viewings or downloads is entirely legal.
As a relentless fan and tireless advocate for classical Hollywood fare, The Internet Archive is one of my favourite sites out in the stratosphere of the interweb! Read on to find 10 classic films that you really have no excuse not to watch… I mean, they’re free for heaven’s sake!!
10. ALGIERS (1938)
Pepe Le Moko (Charles Boyer) is a jewel thief who managed to escape from France with a fortune’s worth of rocks. For the past two years he has lived in and practically become ruler of the impenetrable and mazelike Kasbah of Algiers. A French official demands that the local Inspector, Slimane (Joseph Calleia) must capture the criminal, but the devious policeman knows that he only needs to hold off and wait for Le Moko to come to him. The charismatic thief is increasingly becoming disillusioned with his stronghold, regarding it as much of a prison as well as a haven from justice. When he meets the beautiful Gaby (Hedy Lamar), a tourist from Paris, Le Moko not only lusts after her, but also the home he was forced to flee…
With shadows of the later Casablanca, this film should appeal to fans of the Bogart & Bergman classic, with its tale of unfulfilled love. Charles Boyer is excellent as the charming and suave Le Moko and captures the isolation and despair the character feels knowing he can never return to his beloved Paris with the woman he loves. He went on to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role, but lost out to Spencer Tracy for his solid turn in Boys Town (1938). Hedy Lamar also gives a great performance, characterising Gaby as a sultry, sexy woman who smoulders as she brings about the downfall of Le Moko. Algiers is also an extremely well photographed film and director John Cromwell cleverly captures the excitement and exoticness of the busy Kasbah, whilst simultaneously depicting the stiflingly claustrophobic prison feel it has for Le Moko. An engaging and tense drama, with elements of a mystery and thriller to it, Algiers is perfect Sunday afternoon viewing!
09. A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932)
This story of the love and devotion sees American ambulance driver Lt. Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) and British Nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes) fall for each other during World War I. Meeting whilst working in Italy, the two fall madly in love and will stop at nothing to be together…even when events transpire to pull them apart. Throughout their affair Lt. Henry makes his feelings on war and the necessity of fighting clear to Catherine. Will love manage to keep them together or will war tear them apart forever?
Based on an Ernest Hemmingway novel, the weighty source of this film transfers well to this impressive screen version. Featuring striking sets and stellar performances from both leads, it is an engaging and successful film that boasts a solid message. Cinematographer Charles Lang deservedly went on to win an Oscar for his exceptional photography here, which is breathtaking in places. Lang certainly chose to use some experimental camerawork and the scene where Catherine kisses Henry as he is wheeled into a hospital room seems truly groundbreaking. The plot is timeless, even if the film itself appears dated, and the emotional ending will remain with you long after the end credits roll. Whilst there are moments within the film that seem slow paced, overall, it’s very engaging and Cooper and Hayes pull viewers wholeheartedly into their blossoming romance. The film also gives Cooper an interesting departure from his typical ‘action’ hero roles and he plays the vulnerable and wildly in love Henry perfectly here. It’s a slightly mushy affair, but it’s a solid piece of classic cinema that is certainly worth a viewing. Re-made in 1957 as a big production starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, this later version lacked some of the charm and chemistry between co-stars that is abundant in the earlier adaptation.
08. RAIN (1932)
Life in Pacific island of Pago Pago is easy going, particularly for prostitute Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford)! However, things change when unforgiving, patriarchal religious missionary Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) and his wife arrives. Sadie has secrets from her past – including crimes that she has yet to pay for in San Francisco – that have lead to her loose lifestyle in the Pacific. In attempts to punish Sadie for her sins, Davidson will do all he can to force her to leave the island and return to redemption in San Francisco. Kindly policeman Sergeant O’Hara (William Gargan) loves Sadie and tries to help her escape Pago Pago. But under the influence and prayers of Davidson, Sadie appears to have changed, starting to regret her old life. Will she decide to do the right thing and return to San Francisco and confront justice?
With a narrative that will undoubtedly appear far too moralistic by today’s standards, Rain is an interesting look at 1930s values and the idea of the ‘marked’ woman. Produced before the Moral Code that lead to censorship was enforced, the film boasts a young and striking Crawford giving a natural and thoroughly convincing performance as a cynical but provocative prostitute. For modern audiences, the film has worth in a re-evaluation of the narrative that looks beyond the pretence of 30s puritanical beliefs to see that ‘sinners’ are not always wrong and ‘redeemers’ in the name of God are not always good or right. The film has some wonderful imagery of the fictional Pacific island and although it’s often obvious that the film was shot on a set, it holds up well today. After the highly successful silent version of the W Somerset Maugham novel (starring Gloria Swanson), this film actually proved a financial flop back in the day. Despite offering Crawford in a role that flexed her dramatic chops, audiences didn’t enjoy this and she spent the remainder of the 30s starring in ‘safe’ romantic comedies and light dramas that were little more than vanity projects that allowed her to be little more than an attractive clothes horse! Check Rain out though if you want to see a dramatic turn from the actress that predates her histrionic ‘women in peril’ roles, which dominated her later career.
07. LA CIOCIARA (AKA TWO WOMEN, 1960)
Fleeing the Allied attacks on their hometown at the height of WWII, Cesira (Sophia Loren) and her young daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown), decide to flee to the birthplace of the former. The journey is both arduous and dangerous, but Cesira protects Rosetta to the best of her abilities. However, when they take shelter in a dilapidated church, soldiers hiding in it rape them both. The subsequent guilt that Cesira feels proves too much and she suffers a mental breakdown. The previously tough and powerful woman has to rebuild her life, which takes a turn for the better Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a sensitive and intellectual young man, falls in love with her. Will Cesira be able to leave her past behind her and respond to the advances of a real gentleman or will Rosetta’s own feelings for Michele prevent her from forging a solid relationship?
Directed by Vittorio De Sica – a director responsible for a lot of Italian Neo-Realism cinema, including the heartfelt Ladri Di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) – La Ciociara is an in-depth study on how war affects the innocent. Sophia Loren gives an impassioned performance as Cesira and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role, which also marked the first time it had been presented to an actress for a foreign-language film. The narrative effectively merges elements of melodrama with wartime action and is interesting in its attempts to chronicle the harsh realities of war on the innocent victims who find their homes torn apart by it. This film converted Loren from a simple sex symbol to a real actress and is certainly her greatest role as the ‘mother in despair’, and the harrowing and tragic performance she gives is beautifully expressed not only through dialogue but also a series of sombre, profound facial expressions and venomous tears of hatred. It’s not a particularly easy watch and it can feel like you’ve gone for 40 emotional rounds in the ring, but the power and effect of De Sica’s direction and Loren’s performance make this essential viewing!
06. A STAR IS BORN (1937)
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is a starry-eyed country girl who travels to Los Angeles with dreams of breaking into the movies. Whilst working as a waitress at a star-studded Hollywood party, A-list star Norman Maine (Fredric March) spots her immediate beauty. Soon Norman sees to it that Esther is given a screen test and soon she becomes caught up in the Hollywood glamour machine, becoming rising star Vicki Lester. Vicki idolises Norman and they eventually marry. But as Vicki proves a success, Norman’s diminishing career fuels his alcoholism and leads to catastrophic results…
Long before Judy Garland sang her way through the angst-ridden musical version and even longer before that atrocious Barbara Streisand ‘re-imagining’ (why, oh why did that get a greenlight!?), the oft-told A Star is Born tale was a vehicle for popular 30s stars Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. What this version provides far better than the remakes, is the satirical and unforgiving view of the Hollywood star making industry. Whilst the film world is varnished with the high-gloss lacquer of glamour and success, ultimately it is reflected as empty here. March gives a career-defining performance here as Maine, a star that is smothered by his own excess: whether that be drink or fame. He is simultaneously undignified and charming, a star but a weak man, but his love for Vicki is unfaltering and true. March gives a highly expressive portrayal of Maine and this makes his characterisation of the alcoholic star that much more authentic. A Star is Born perfectly demonstrates the appeal and allure of the mystery and splendour of Hollywood, only to trash this by suggesting it is an unforgiving and at times extremely cruel world. Any fan of Tinseltown or any prospective actor should definitely check this film out!
05. FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH (1933)
It’s one minute to midnight on Friday the thirteenth and the rain is ferociously pouring down as a London bus driver glides down an empty road. Lightning suddenly strikes and an enormous crane collapses into the path of the oncoming bus… As the bus crashes, Big Ben winds backwards and the lives of the onboard passengers are revealed. A series of flashbacks transpire to divulge the events that have encouraged the passengers to travel on the late-night bus journey. From a con man who has his ill-gotten gains with him to a businessman’s troubled elderly wife, the stories bring us back to the crash, where viewers discover who has survived…
Not to be confused with the 80s horror classic, this Friday the Thirteenth is a melodrama that has a highly inventive and unusual narrative. The bus crash that forces the characters’ together allows for the audience to witness a series of flashbacks from which an intriguing and engaging plot is woven. This early ‘connecting character lives’ plot appears ahead of its time and undoubtedly appears as a classic British precursor to such Hollywood epics as Crash (2005) and Mexican dramas as Amores Perros (2003). A fantastic character piece, the film boasts a cast of virtually forgotten talent, which actually makes the film that little bit more enjoyable as you don’t spend your time comparing performances to the actors’ better known roles. Produced in the early years of sound pictures, the actors here are beautifully expressive and embody their characters in an extensively visual way. This little known gem is certainly worth a watch for its captivating and atypical narrative, as well as its stellar performances.
04. PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950)
When Blackie (Jack Palance), a violent hood, and his thuggish friends kill an illegal immigrant who they consider won too much in a card game, hell breaks loose in the New Orleans slums they call home. Public Health Service official Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) confirms that the dead man was infected with pneumonic plague. In efforts to prevent a cataclysmic health epidemic, Reed must discover the killers’ identities and inoculate them before it’s too late… With only the help of cautious police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) and with only a 48hour margin, can the doctor turn detective and prevent panic from breaking out in the streets?
With shadows of Albert Camus’ hard-hitting novel The Plague, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets is equally memorable. The director’s immense skills help build a portrait of New Orleans back in 1950 that is so realistic viewers feel like they can literally, touch, taste and smell it! Palance is exceptional as the vile thug who doesn’t realise the extent of his murderous villainy and Widmark – who was often typecast as a gentleman villain – is interesting here in the role of the protagonist. The film has a grippingly entertaining fast pace and concludes with a final chase sequence that doesn’t disappoint. Elements of film noir intermingle with notions of melodrama and culminate in a highly tense and exciting film. With a message that resonates just as loudly today as it did in 1950, this is a classic not to miss!
03. GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)
Pip (John Mills) is a good-natured but naive young orphan who lives with kind blacksmith and his unkind wife. When a soldier asks the blacksmith to work on producing chains for escaped galley-convicts, Pip is taken along as an assistant. Life changes for Pip when he is invited to play with Estella (Valerie Hobson), the arrogant but beautiful adoptive daughter of the ominous Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt). The relationship blossoms after a mysterious benefactor offers Pip an education and healthy allowance…
It’s simply a British classic. Perhaps not the most enjoyable of tales – I mean, most Dickens makes a rather laborious watch – but essential viewing nonetheless. To find a film of such stature available for a free screening or download is certainly a rarity and an opportunity everyone should take! David Lean’s glorious B&W direction remains as beautiful today as it must have appeared on the big screen back in 1946. The majestic look of the film adds a sense of importance to the production, which has surely helped this version become the seminal vision of Dickens’ classic novel. The cast are incredible, with both Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, Valerie Hobson as Estella and John Mills as Pip pulling in truly exceptional performances. Lean successfully draws you in to the fictional world of Dickens’ most memorable work and with the help of this amazing cast, really brings the novel to life. A well deserved classic, this film is quintessential classic British cinema viewing!
02. CHARADE (1963)
Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is about to proceed with divorcing her estranged husband Charlie, when she finds that he that somebody has conveniently murdered him for her! Unfortunately, she also discovers that before his demise Charlie inconveniently decided to convert every penny they own into cash, which is now missing. In her search for the fortune, she meets Peter Joshua (a man who has as many identities as he does Saville Row suits!). Joshua is also interested in the Lampert cash, which appears to have come from a dubious source. Joining Regina and Joshua in the search are a number of thugs, who insist on turning up dead!
Starring two of the 20th century’s most iconic stars, Charade is equally about good looks and fashionable wardrobes. Much like most of Hepburn’s 60s output, Charade sees her decked out in a chic wardrobe that’s highly inappropriate for sleuthing, but makes her look entirely ravishing! Charade has a convoluted narrative that seamlessly blends elements of mystery and suspense with humour and zany comedy. It works well through the close chemistry of the leads and the strong network of supporting talent that boasts such greats as James Coburn, George Kennedy and Wather Matthau! It’s hard to believe that a film that was directed by legendary Stanley Donen and starring an array of popular talent would slip into the public domain. By whatever fortune though, it did, and it’s certainly one of the better films to check out on The Internet Archive!
01. THE 39 STEPS (1935)
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian gentleman visiting London. After attending a music hall vaudeville show with a ‘Mr Memory’ act, he meets the exotically beautiful and mysterious Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). Smith insists Hannay helps her, but unbeknownst to the Canadian, she’s running away from a horde of secret agents! Allowing Smith to hide in his flat, Hannay awakes the next morning to find that she has been murdered in the night… Fearing he held accountable for the murder, Hannay must use all his wit to evade the authorities and break the spy ring responsible for the murder. But will a brief encounter on his travels throw a spanner in the works?
This has to be one of Hitchcock’s earliest works of perfection. Here, the overarching mystery narrative is offset with a screwball comedy style romance between Hannay and Madeleine Carroll’s vixen, Pamela. Suspense is effortlessly blended with comic relief and the director seamlessly shifts our attentions from the spy plot to this relationship. Exploring themes of trust and betrayal, The 39 Steps is a thrill-ride from opening to closing credits. Both Donat and Carroll are excellently cast and provide both comic relief and taut dramatics in sizeable and perfectly deployed dollops. With a loving attention to detail, this is one of Hitchcock’s early classics and essential viewing for any fan of the director, or indeed, cinema in a broader sense.