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Dell Publications/Wikimedia (Public Domain)
All of these films are worth seeing.
The trouble with watching movies on YouTube is that access to them is fleeting. If you’re watching a free copy of, say, The Big Sleep, it’s either a) in the public domain and legal or b) not in the public domain and illegal. The latter are subject to copyright and will be taken down sooner or later. But the former, which are often uploaded by private users not affiliated with film companies, have a way of vanishing, too, leaving those of us looking for quality in a bind. Where the heck do you go to watch Lauren Bacall suggestively teach Humphrey Bogart how to whistle (“Put your lips together and blow!”) or Cary Grant chase a giant leopard?
Luckily, film studios have started releasing their classic catalogs on YouTube. Sometimes they’re free (see: no. 14) and other times you’re subject to an extremely small rental fee, which is a lot better than wasting your $15 dollars on Collateral Beauty. Trust someone who’s been there.
These 15 great movies are just a start. There’s so, so much more that awaits.
1) Adam’s Rib
When it comes to the question of one’s favorite Hepburn, there really is no wrong answer. I, however, have always been a Katharine partisan—the fast-talking dame who wore pants. On-screen, Katharine Hepburn was a force of nature: independent and indomitable. While Bringing Up Baby and Holiday let the actress explore her more manic, free-spirited side, she’s at her hard-nosed best across from Spencer Tracy in George Cukor’s 1949 classic. Tracy and Hepburn, who define what great screen chemistry is, play married lawyers who are assigned on opposite sides of the same case. The film is so whip-smart you’ll need the subtitles to catch every line.
2) All About Eve
BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur recently called All About Eve the greatest movie to ever win the Oscar for best picture. That’s a provocative statement considering the stiff competition (The Godfather, Casablanca), but I won’t be the one to correct her. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s best is so genre-defining it would be repeatedly copied over the years, providing the template for movies from Black Swan to Showgirls. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An ingenue makes her way up through the showbiz ranks, dethroning the reigning queen who came before her. While the scenario is often played for camp, All About Eve is a richly textured and incisive look at female ambition in an industry that creates too few opportunities for women, a story increasingly relevant to today’s Hollywood.
3) Army of Shadows
Pierre Lhomme, the cinematographer for Army of Shadows, sat on a panel last year for the restoration of Maurice, an early Merchant-Ivory effort that’s worth your time. But it’s telling of the reputation of Army of Shadows that no one in the audience wanted to ask about the movie they just saw. They wanted to know “how he did it.” That’s pretty much the operative question when you watch Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film, one of the most beautiful and haunting movies ever made: What kind of person could have made such a film? How did they pull it off? Following French resistance fighters during World War II, Army of Shadows lived in obscurity until 2006, when the film was released in the U.S. for the first time. It has since received the acclaim it deserves.
4) Baby Face
“Use men!” That’s the advice given to Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), a barmaid whose bootlegger father has just been burned alive. She is thinking about taking a job as a chorus girl. Her favorite customer (Alphonse Ethier), however, advises her to take the advice of Friedrich Nietzsche: If life is exploitation, Lily should learn to exploit herself to get ahead. She takes his advice, moving to New York, landing a job in the first skyscraper she sees, and using her—ahem—feminine wiles to work her way to the top. The 1933 film, released during the Pre-Code era, is an early feminist triumph. Baby Face never wags its finger at Lily for using the tools at her disposal, and it’s shockingly frank about sex in a way movies wouldn’t be allowed for decades. It’s both unbelievably good and unbelievable that it even exists.
5) Born Yesterday
There’s a reason that Judy Holliday, then a relative unknown, won the Oscar during one of the most stacked best actress years in history. The ingenue faced off against Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for Sunset Boulevard. Her Billie Dawn, a forerunner to Elle Woods, is one of Hollywood’s most infectious and vibrant creations, a gangster’s moll who dreams of being refined. That will be quite a task for Billie, who comes off like Gloria Grahame with a bullhorn. Her first line in the film is an ear-piercing wail: “WHAAAAAAAT?” Holliday, so effortless in the role that it barely seems like acting, would play versions of the character in Bells Are Ringing and It Should Happen to You, the latter of which is also available on YouTube.
6) Citizen Kane
It’s a bit passé to put Citizen Kane on a best-movies list, right? Like, we get it already. It’s good! But whenever I bring up the film to people who haven’t seen it (yes, they exist), it’s like I’m asking them to take medicine. Citizen Kane is great, but it has the air of stuffiness that comes from being so roundly canonized. That’s a grave disservice to the movie itself, an innovative passion project that reimagined what movies could do. For those coming to it for the first time, I advise you to watch it closely. Savor its richness of detail and characterization. Notice that Welles’ camera appears to have wings at a time when everyone else was chained to the ground. Citizen Kane is, indeed, a masterpiece, that most overused of words. But it’s also a miracle.
7) Dark Passage
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made better movies (The Big Sleep, To Have and To Have Not), but this collaboration was their boldest effort. The entire first third of the film, which is about a falsely accused man who gets plastic surgery to disguise his identity, is told only through the protagonist’s point of view. The audience cannot see Bogart because the character does not yet look like the actor we know. The formal experimentation doesn’t always quite work, sometimes contradicting its own subjective perspective. But it’s a thrilling gambit that asked audiences to look at cinema in a new way, merging the audience and subject. (The Lady in the Lake, released the same year, would use the same device.)
8) Double Indemnity
Barbara Stanwyck is absurdly prolific, and you’ll notice a number of her films pop up on this list. When it comes to the Golden Age of Hollywood, there is no one quite like her, a talent so undeniable that Stanwyck worked without a contract during an era where actors were basically owned by studios. The greatest of all her films is Billy Wilder’s noir stunner, which he co-wrote with Raymond Chandler, the master of the detective novel. Every moment of this film, in which an insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) and a bored housewife (Stanwyck) who scheme to bump off her husband to collect his life insurance, is urgent, compelling, and alive. It’s tempting to say that they don’t make them like this anymore, but they rarely ever did.
9) Gun Crazy
As a tale of lovers on the run, Bonnie and Clyde is more widely known. Gun Crazy, listed on IMDb as Deadly Is the Female, is the one closer to my heart. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, it has the feverish feel of a great B-movie. As Stefon of Saturday Night Live might say, Gun Crazy has everything: bad girls, sharpshooting carnies, violence-obsessed adolescents, and a chase scene through a meat locker. Bart Tare (John Dall), a reform-school alum with great aim, meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummings) at a shooting contest, when he dethrones the pistol queen. The two embark on a whirlwind romance complete with bank robbery after his new love lures him into a life of crime. Gun Crazy should be dime store trash, but the underappreciated noir is utterly mesmerizing.
10) Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a monster hit that revived the careers of its aging leads, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, so two years later, director Robert Aldrich decided to have his cake all over again. Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte is a little bit Baby Jane and a whole lot of Gaslight: An aging spinster (Davis) believed to have killed her married lover years prior is driven insane by a couple of schemers who hope to get her money (Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotton). Davis gives a deliciously over-the-top performance in a role reversal from the earlier film, playing a Southern belle taken prisoner by her own mind. The movie is campy fun, and one of Davis’ last great roles.
11) Imitation of Life
Imitation of Life is cinema’s greatest bait-and-switch triumph. Audiences familiar with Douglas Sirk’s oeuvre, known for middle-age melodramas like All That Heaven Allows, were expecting an opulent tale of rags to riches. Lana Turner’s wardrobe cost a widely publicized $1.078 million. But instead Sirk, the master of subversion, gave audiences an intimate race drama decades ahead of its time. Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is a struggling single mother who moves in with Lora Meredith (Turner), an aspiring actress. Her daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), is half white and “passes” as Caucasian at school—that is, until Sarah’s friends see her mother. Sirk intentionally undercuts his lead to tell a powerful story about identity, leading a finale so emotional you might get a headache from crying.
12) Interrupted Melody
This one is strictly for the gays. The first half of Interrupted Melody, a true-life tale about an opera singer whose renowned career is cut short by polio, is kind of dull. Aside from some fantastic costume changes, you can mostly fast-forward through it. The second half, though, is a camp wonderland. In a key scene, Marjorie Lawrence (Eleanor Parker) stubbornly refuses to walk again, confined to her wheelchair. Her husband, Tom (Glenn Ford), puts on a record of one of her concerts as Marjorie begs him to turn it off. “If you want it off so much, turn it off yourself,” he commands. She crawls across the floor, sobbing, and knocks the record player over. If this lapse of taste surprises you, note that Marjorie is Australian and the lead sounds like, well, the Baroness from The Sound of Music.
13) The Killing
The Killing, a box-office flop, is possibly the least remembered of all Stanley Kubrick’s works, and that’s a shame. It’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey (what is?), but this 1956 film noir would prove that the master director had what it took to be one of the greats. The plot is a bit like Reservoir Dogs: A band of criminals plan to rob a horse track and the job goes wrong, so they slowly turn on each other. The Killing is both tense and taut, clocking in at a brisk 85 minutes, but the real delight is its cast, which includes Kubrick regular Sterling Hayden. Top of the class is Marie Windsor, playing the two-timing wife of George (Elisha Cook Jr.), who manages to manipulate her hapless husband into disclosing details of the heist.
14) No Man of Her Own
No Man of Her Own, screwball impresario Mitchell Leisen’s foray into noir, would be remade twice, both times as a romantic comedy. First there was While You Were Sleeping, featuring Sandra Bullock, and later Mrs. Winterbourne, starring Ricki Lake. It’s a pretty classic Idiot Plot: A pregnant, unmarried woman, Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck), shares a train car with another mother to be. The locomotive crashes, killing both the woman and the child’s father. In the hospital, the deceased passenger’s in-laws, who have never met her, mistake Helen for their son’s wife. Helen goes along with the ruse—because she believes that the wealthy family could provide a better life for her child—but the plan puts the family in danger when an old flame shows up to blackmail her. What makes No Man of Her Own thrilling is that it shows the underlying darkness inherent in the premise. It makes a trope into a propulsive potboiler.
15) Now, Voyager
You’re likely aware of Now, Voyager, even if you don’t know it. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), a frumpy spinster, goes away to a sanitarium and comes back a reformed woman—confident and sexy. She meets a married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid), aboard a cruise ship, and they have a brief affair that results in a daughter. Later in the movie, the former lovers share a mournful cigarette, their regrets a third character in the room. Jerry lights both cigarettes in his mouth, handing one to Charlotte. That famous moment, often imitated, is both subtle and sensual, hinting at the burning torch they share. But what makes Now, Voyager memorable isn’t just its passions but how wise it is about the fraught relationship between parents and children. In order to become herself, Charlotte must move out of the shadow of her domineering mother.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.