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The last two movies reviewed on this blog, Killers from Space (1954), and Renegade Girl (1946) were both viewed via the website archive.org. This fine site, which I have been visiting regularly this year since re-discovering it after a few years’ gap, is a haven for public domain movies, most of which viewers outside of the US are unlikely to see in anything like their original format or running time (but more about this later). Old serials, early crime thrillers, more Westerns than you can shake a cowhand at, silent films, sci-fi movies from the 50’s and 60’s, cheap horror movies, all the low-budget guilty pleasures you could possibly ask for are all here in their thousands.

Founded in 1996 by Brewster Kahle, the Archive is a non-profit digital library. The  organisation is dedicated to the permanent storage of and free public access to collections of digitised materials, including websites, music, other audio files, moving images, and nearly three million public domain books. At time of writing, the Archive has over 3,800 feature films in its collection.

How it works is this: members of the site upload movies in the public domain onto the site in a variety of formats, sometimes Ogg video, sometimes 512kb MPEG4, or plain old DivX. You can then either log in as a member, or not, and then either download the movie in the file format that suits you, or just stream it for instant viewing. (The reason there was a gap in my use of the site was down to the poor streaming capability the site had a few years ago; now it’s much improved.) If you download a movie it’s yours to keep for as long as you like. What could be simpler?

Well…several things as it turns out. The Archive is unwieldy to use, with even its own search function set up to work against you sometimes. If you don’t know the full title of a movie, maybe only one word – and that word is, say, “ghost” – then you’ll potentially discover hundreds of movies or clips or adverts or videos where the word “ghost” is either in the title or the description, and leaving you to scroll through them all trying, hoping, to find the one you’re looking for. And make sure you type your search word in the Search: box and select Movies (10 lines down) from the All Media Types dropbox, otherwise things will become very frustrating, very quickly.

Once you have found the right movie, and you’re ready to download or stream it, hold fast before continuing any further. Some of the movies on the Archive are not complete.  In fact, quite a few fall short of their total running times by as much as ten minutes. This is because a lot of the movies that have been uploaded have been done so from video or DVD, and the companies that produced these releases haven’t always made an effort to source the best versions. Some are versions edited for TV, others are second- or third-generation copies, often with poor sound and picture quality. So before you start watching, check the running time with IMDb. My advice: if there’s only a minute or so’s difference between the Archive and IMDb, then don’t worry. You might notice some dropped frames, or ill-matched splices, but it shouldn’t deter from your (hopefully) enjoying the movie.

There are some real gems to be found hidden away in the Archive, and for me, part of the fun is finding them. I often just type in a random word and see what turns up (that’s how I found both Killers from Space and Renegade Girl). On the more famous side of things, here are a dozen public domain movies that are available on the site, and which everyone should have heard of:

The 39 Steps (1935), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Charade (1963), Reefer Madness (1936), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Kid (1921), Jungle Book (1942), Pygmalion (1938), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Battleship Potemkin (1925), and, of course, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

If you’re a movie buff like me – who can sit through anything – you’ll always find something interesting to watch on the Archive, no matter how badly presented it may be, or how dreadful – let’s not forget, some of these movies are in the public domain for a reason. But as a treasure trove of (largely) long-forgotten, occasionally-missed and surprisingly entertaining “old” movies (there are plenty of post 60’s movies to be found as well), the Archive is by far the best place to visit. Now…how many Renfrew of the Royal Mounted movies are available…?