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Last week’s summery dip into the internet’s cinematic back catalogue reminded me that it’s been a while since I did a more thorough trawl through a vast streaming resource that even cinephiles frequently seem to forget is there: that humble old standby, the public domain. More major vintage cinema than you might think has trickled through to the unglamorous realm of expired intellectual property rights, and lurks in assorted dusty corners of the web waiting to be discovered or rediscovered at no cost. As I’ve written before, YouTube houses a lot of them in varying states of picture and sound quality: hunting them down is generally not a game for highly particular, Criterion-collecting film buffs.
But sometimes, when other avenues in search of a certain under-screened classic have run into dead ends, to see it in imperfect condition is better than to not see it at all, and online archives come to the rescue. A few years ago, I sang the praises of the Internet Archive, the somewhat fusty-looking but reliable granddaddy of all public domain collections, and it remains one of my regular fallbacks: its vast Movies section, features more than 23,000 videos – 6,000 of them feature films – and runs the gamut from Hollywood standards to lesser-known Charlie Chaplin shorts to second world war propaganda reels.
Fritz Lang’s stark, steely 1945 film noir Scarlet Street was a pleasing find. A landmark at the time for its amoral stance on its protagonist’s crimes, it remains strikingly downbeat even by its genre’s tough standards. If a sillier mood takes you, they have a surprisingly crisp transfer of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Ed Wood’s delightful, styrofoam sci-fi romp, famously branded by Hollywood as the worst film ever made. More expensively awful films are released every year, of course, but you wouldn’t want to bestow the accolade on any old charmless tripe; Wood’s disasterpiece earns its event status.
Dated in design and organised rather like the digital equivalent of a shabby charity shop, the Internet Archive is the heftiest public domain resource, but not the most user-friendly. Other, more selective collections have cropped up over the years, displaying their wares in more eye-catching fashion. I’m partial to Big Five Glories, a smallish but tidily kept selection of Hollywood fixtures and curios alike, organised by decade. If, for academic reasons, you’ve ever wanted or needed to see DW Griffith’s formally mighty but politically horrifying silent epic The Birth of a Nation, there it is. You’ll have more fun, though, wallowing in the lushly lurid pre-code glories of 1932’s Rain, with Joan Crawford as glamorous, globe-trotting hooker Sadie Thompson. On the later end of their timeline, meanwhile, lies a rare foreign inclusion in Two Women: Vittorio De Sica’s sturdy, moving mix of social realism and melodrama, which won Sophia Loren an expressively earned Oscar.
The plainly named Public Domain Movies, meanwhile, lives up to its no-nonsense branding. Divided by genre, though a little hard to more specifically navigate beyond that – a little alphabetising wouldn’t kill them – it’s a substantial archive of sensible choices, with an unusually strong sidebar of vintage cartoon nuggets ranging from Disney to Betty Boop. I was happiest, meanwhile, to chance upon the original 1937 version of A Star Is Born, in all its misty, early Technicolor glory: it lacks the emotional sucker-punch of 1954’s definitive Judy Garland version, but as we wait to see how Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have glazed this chestnut, it’s helpful to return to the source.
New to streaming & DVD this week
Beast (Altitude, 15)
Superbly anchored by Jessie Buckley (right), Michael Pearce’s impressively twisty debut probes darker, more perverse desires than you’d expect on the island of Jersey.
In the Fade (Curzon Artificial Eye, 18)
Cannes-awarded Diane Kruger gives us the hard sell on Fatih Akin’s slightly overwrought revenge thriller.
A Gentle Creature (Arrow, 18)
Speaking of hard sells, Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa’s surreal, seemingly Gogol-inspired plunge into Russian institutional corruption is formidable, but an undeniable endurance test.
Rampage (Warner Bros, 12)
Taking the difficulty factor down a notch: it’s called Rampage, it stars the Rock, and he’s facing a giant silverback gorilla. You know what you’re in for, and that’s just fine.
Tom Jones (BFI, 12)
I’ve never warmed to this japey 1963 adaptation of Henry Fielding, but this pristine restoration gives the film its best shot at changing my mind.
The Deer Hunter (StudioCanal, 18)
Far more my speed as former Best Picture champs go: a four-disc, full-to-bursting 40th anniversary reissue of Michael Cimino’s still-searing post-Vietnam elegy.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Film in the public domain: here be buried treasures | Film