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Photograph: First National

25 best free movies on YouTube that are legitimately great

Old classics, brilliant rarities and cult gems you can’t find on Netflix

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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In a world of streaming platforms that seems to swell by the week (hello, Paramount Plus!), YouTube is like earth’s natural resource for movies. On there, you’ll find a vast array of movies to rent and buy – a tally only matched by Google, Apple and Amazon Prime – but also, a whole cornucopia of incredible freebies to delve into. Take it from us, thanks to the vagaries of copyright law, YouTube is now a remarkable repository of hard-to-find cinema. From The Witchfinder General to Sunrise, it’s a perpetual home for everything from silent classics top undiscovered deep-cuts, essential curios to arthouse gems. Dig in, your Letterboxd account will thank you for it.

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🎬 100 Best Movies of All Time.
💣 The greatest thrillers ever made.

Best free movies on YouTube

  • Film
  • Comedy
The late, great Charles Grodin stars in Elaine May’s tartly hilarious anti-romcom. He plays a newlywed on honeymoon with his wife (the Oscar-nominated Jeannie Berlin), who has his head turned by Cybill Shepherd’s hautily flirtatious student. Neil Simon’s scalpel-sharp screenplay lets no one off the hook in a devilishly funny takedown of feckless men. Worth watching just for Eddie Albert and Grodin going head-to-head as prospective father-in-law and squirming love rat with a fine line in bullshit.

🎬 Watch it here.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Photograph: Continental Distributing

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

This lo-fi George A Romero shufflerthon isn’t where the zombie genre began, but it’s definitely where it got its brains. A pervading sense of doom hangs over its starkly shot clutch of Americans escaping a creeping undead apocalypse and barricading themselves into a remote farmhouse. A symptom of a country at odds with itself or just a nerve-gnawing nightmare? Both, really. Even if the ‘Z’ word is never uttered, Romero seizes onto zombies as an avatar for all sorts of social ills. You can’t vaccinate against these guys.

🎬 Watch it here.

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Nightmare Alley (1947)
  • Film
  • Thrillers

Guillermo del Toro’s remake was polished to a fine sheen, but for our money the first take on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel about a fraudulent loner’s rise and fall in the dizzying, decadent world of carnival is the more compelling watch. That’s mainly down to an against-type Tyrone Power, who charges the film not just with clammy desperation, but just enough humanity to make you care when it all goes hideously south, and Helen Walker as the duplicitous partner-in-crime who gives him a nudge in that direction.

🎬 Watch it here.

  • Film

Peter Watkins’s influential docudrama applies a reportage lens to a real historical event to plunge the viewer right into the thick of the Battle of Culloden. ‘Battle’, in truth, is a misnomer: the combat was more like slaughter as the imcompetent Bonnie Prince Charlie oversaw the decimation of the highland clans of Scotland. Here, there are historians reporting on the events from the sidelines like commentators, while Watkins’ grainy, monochrome footage introduces the key players – and the bedraggled Scots lining up against their outmatched foes. It’s a unique viewing experience: forensic, yet surreal, like Apocalypse Now on CNN. 

🎬 Watch it here.

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Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)
Photograph: United Artists

5. Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)

This silent classic features one of Buster Keaton’s maddest stunts, in which a falling house front narrowly misses squashing him. During a cyclone. Married to that trademark daring-do, Keaton’s brand of effervescent deadpan just never gets old – and this is one of his best, despite being a flop when it came out. He plays a paddle steamer captain at war with a rival on the river, until that storm hits and threatens them all. The film’s HD restoration will look pinsharp even on a crappy old laptop.

🎬 Watch it here.

Scum (1979)
Photograph: World Northal

6. Scum (1979)

Famous for a snooker ball scene that absolutely does not involve snooker, Alan Clarke’s landmark Brit drama is brilliantly acted – not least in its central turn by a young Ray Winstone. Playing borstal inmate Carlin, he looks about 16 (though was actually 22 at the time) and exudes a reined-in ferocity as he pursues alpha status in a block run by cruel, bullying screws. Somehow the film’s anger never overwhelms its craft, with Clarke’s camera always in just the right place to capture its seething undercurrent of nastiness and hurt. Bruising but essential.

🎬 Watch it here.

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D.O.A. (1949)
Photograph: United Artists

7. D.O.A. (1949)

The most hard-boiled thing on YouTube that isn’t just a video of someone boiling eggs, Rudolph Maté’s bastard-tough ‘40s flick (‘Dead on Arrival’) has everything you’d want in a noir: a twisty plot, femme fatales, blokes in suits spitting tough-guy dialogue at each other, unimpressed cops. Its high concept – a man (Edmond O'Brien) reports his own death to the police – had ‘80s Hollywood reaching for the remake button. Thanks to a clerical error its copyright lapsed and YouTubers are the winner.

🎬
Watch it here.

  • Film
  • Comedy

This Harold Lloyd caper is nerve-shredding and hilarious – the movie equivalent of being electrocuted and tickled at the same time. The jovial Lloyd leans into his gags more than his silent comedy peer Buster Keaton, making for interesting contrasts in style, but his perilous set-ups are less entertaining or insane. Most famous, of course, is the Manhattan tower scene that has Lloyd’s country bumpkin clinging to a teetering clock face in a case of high-altitude mistaken identity. With Safety Last, the clue is right there in the title. 

🎬 Watch it here.

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A Star is Born (1937)
Photograph: Turner Classic | 'A Star is Born' (1937)

9. A Star is Born (1937)

There have been five versions of A Star is Born, including an unoffical Bollywood remake. Most recent was Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s 2018 take, but that was preceded by the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, Judy Garland’s 1954 musical and, finally, this 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a young farm girl desperate to become an actress. After moving to Hollywood, she meets Norman Maine (March), a famous actor whose career is going down the drain owing to his alcoholism. With his help, Esther adopts the stage name Vicki Lester and becomes an award-winning star. However, after the pair marry, Norman’s alcoholism threatens to derail her career, with their story ultimately leading to tragedy. 

🎬Watch it here.

  • Film
  • Comedy

A Depression-era comedy with class warfare themes that still chime, full of laughs that still land, and played by a cast as irresistible as ever (William Powell and Carole Lombard were made to run rings around each other), this lesser-known screwball is a delight from start to finish. Powell is a New York vagrant given a job by Lombard’s spoiled Park Ave heiress, he gives her some life lessons. If you haven’t discovered it yet, YouTube is here for you. 

🎬 Watch it here.

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Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Photograph: YouTube

11. Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Angry sailors take to the streets in Sergei Eisenstein’s great Soviet landmark. One of the daddies of cinema, it’s most famous for its genius editing and the shocking Odessa massacre scene. It’s now almost a hundred years old but is still forever pored over by film students, directors and cineastes. Sure, it plays a little fast and loose with the history (there was no massacre on the steps) but it hardly matters: it’s stirring stuff, even for non-Bolsheviks.

🎬 
Watch it here.

📍You can visit the Odessa Stairs IRL. Here’s where to find them.

The Kid (1921)
Photograph: First National

12. The Kid (1921)

There’s nothing like a Charlie Chaplin movie to put a smile on your face and this 1921 effort is perhaps the smiliest of the lot. It pairs the Little Tramp up with an even littler sidekick: an orphan child (Jackie Coogan) he takes under his wing and trains up in the art of making a lot out of very little. It’s a direct inspiration for Paddington and we can’t think of a greater reference that than. The restored HD version is on YouTube.

🎬Watch it here.

📍The Little Tramp lived in a big house. It’s in Switzerland and you can visit it

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  • Film
  • Comedy

Great screenwriter Ben Hecht made an uncredited contribution to classic newsroom screwball His Girl Friday, but his glorious stamp is all over a Technicolor rom-com. It pairs Carole Lombard and Fredric March as a dying young woman from the boondocks and the ambitious reporter who brings her back to New York as an inspirational story of courage and fortitude. The happy wrinkle? She’s not actually dying. If sparkling chemistry and likeable cynicism are you thing – and whose thing aren’t they? – it’s on YouTube now. 

🎬 Watch it here.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Photograph: Carlton International Media Ltd

14. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The premise is simple – an English lady vanishes aboard a train across Europe – but the execution sublime in Hitchcock’s timeless locomotive caper. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave play two inquisitive Brits who try to uncover what has become of kindly old music teacher Miss Froy (May Whitty) when she suddenly disappears. Goes down easier than a cup of Earl Grey on a rainy day, though the Hitchcock cameo is quite tricky to spot in this one.

🎬
Watch it here.

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Heaven Can Wait (1943)
  • Film
  • Comedy

Hollywood’s answer to A Matter of Life and Death, Ernst Lubitsch’s deft and dapper comedy follows an old playboy (Don Ameche) who turns up in Hell assuming the worst. As he looks back over his rabble-rousing days, though, it turns out he’s not quite as damnable as he thought. Gene Tierney is the wife who may be his saving grace.Skip the 1978 Warren Beatty remake and watch this one.

🎬 Watch it here.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Photograph: RKO Radio Pictures

16. The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

If you haven’t seen any Ida Lupino films, do yourself a favour and settle down with a sweltering road movie noir that the south Londoner wrote and directed. It takes its inspiration from the real-life crime spree of Billy Cook in 1950, with William Talman delivering an all-time study in deranged villainy as Emmett Myers, a gun man on the run with two hostages (Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy). In an inspired character tic, Myers literally sleeps with one eye open.

🎬Watch it here.

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Witchfinder General (1968)
Photograph: Tigon Pictures

17. Witchfinder General (1968)

Vincent Price is spectacularly sinister as a travelling witchfinder in Cromwellian England, roaming East Anglia with a view to hanging anything warty. Up against him is a Roundhead soldier (Ian Ogilvy) who twigs that he’s actually a corrupt old sadist using his power in malevolent ways. Directed by Michael Reeves with a satisfying eye for tavern-based bawdiness and chilling violence, it’s right up there with The Wicker Man in the annals of British folk horror.

🎬Watch it here.

His Girl Friday (1940)
Photograph: Columbia Pictures

18. His Girl Friday (1940)

This classic screwball is a timeless classic with machine-gun patter provided by a pair of screenwriting giants, Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, and Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant doing the rest as two jousting exes and colleagues on a big city newspaper. Watching Russell’s fast-talking star reporter Hildy and Grant’s exasperated editor running rings around each other is one of the purest joys of ‘40s Hollywood.

🎬Watch it here.

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  • Film
  • Thrillers

At a lean, mean 68 minutes, this Poverty Row noir is an enduring influence on just about every dark-edged thriller since – an exercise in economy, shot in just six days, that will leave you clammy-palmed and at least four percent more cynical. As you might expect, it’s not the most polished thing to ever reach the screen (there’s the whole shot-six-days thing), but for sheer amoral fizz this tale off a luckless hitchhiker (Tom Neal) who steals a car from a dead man and then picks up the wrong ride (Ann Savage), Edgar G Ulmer’s classic takes some beating. A bit like its antihero.

🎬 Watch it here.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Photograph: Universal Pictures

20. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

A romantic comedy done the John Cassavetes way, Minnie and Moskowitz is loose and strangely lingering. The two central characters – museum curator Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) and parking attendant Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) – have a craving for love that pushes them together all the gentle magnetism of two out-of-control bumper cars. Less of a meet-cute, more of a collision.

🎬Watch it here.

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Gaslight (1940)
Photograph: Anglo-American Film Corp.

21. Gaslight (1940)

This British thriller hardly bothers to hide its big twist, confident that its terrors lose not a wit of their power for being carried out in full view of the audience. And for that it can thank Anton Walbrook, who is all slippery menace as a man who sets about making his wife (Diana Wynyard) feel like she’s losing her mind as they settle into their new Pimlico pile. An edge-of-the-seat adaptation of a stage play, it got a starry but slightly less effective American remake four years later (though that one isn’t on YouTube).

🎬 Watch it here

The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973)
Photograph: Columbia Pictures

22. The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (1973)

Sinbad (John Phillip Law) faces down the sinister Grand Vizier in a fantasy epic that’s tailor made for a lazy Sunday afternoon but thanks to its handy presence on YouTube, is available 24/7. The bad news for the seafaring Arabian is that many-armed goddess Kali and at least one furious centaur also stand in his path. But that’s good new for the rest of us, because they’re the handiwork of stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen and suiitably magnificent.

🎬 Watch it here.

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Sunrise (1927)
  • Film
  • Drama

Impressively gritty even by today’s standards, FW Murnau’s silent masterpiece drinks deeply from the well of fatalism, romance and radical change that was 1920s Europe. At its centre is a rural couple – known only as the Man (George O’Brien) and the Wife (Janet Gaynor) – who are at once archetypes and well-drawn characters, driven by relatable desires and hopes. Into their midst comes an urban sophisticate in the role of temptress (Margaret Livingston). Watch it as a metaphor for those tumultuous times, or just because it’s really bloody good.

🎬 Watch it here.

Nosferatu (1922)
Photograph: Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek

24. Nosferatu (1922)

Much spoofed and homaged but never bettered – even by Werner Herzog’s admirable 1979 remake – FW Murnau’s silent chiller follows long-fingered vampire Count Orlok (Max Schreck) across Europe, plague and pestilence in his wake. The film is a riff on Bram Stoker’s Dracula rather than an adaptation – a nuance that didn’t deter the Stoker estate legal team from suing and having nearly every copy destroyed. Thankfully for cinephiles, a few survived.

🎬Watch it here
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Rebecca (1940)
Photograph: United Artists

25. Rebecca (1940)

You could watch the disappointing remake on Netflix or just head straight for the timeless first version here. Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel has four stars: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, and the big, foreboding Cornish mansion of Manderley (actually built on a Hollywood soundstage). The old pile hosts a gothic thriller that will have you gripped right from its famous opening line (‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’).

🎬Watch it here

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