The number of films available to stream for free online only seems to keep growing, to the point now that you can click your way through a narrow but nonetheless significant slice of film history. On a number of sites on the up-and-up the offerings go well beyond straight-to-video-caliber junk.
A purist might rightly complain that the size of a computer screen and the often poor quality of the video are particularly unkind to the stark images of an unusual classic like Charles Laughton's 1955 film The Night of the Hunter (available until recently on the ad-supported site Hulu). It is certainly not my contention that the medium's masterpieces can be fully appreciated from a window inside your Internet browser, but rather that the miscellaneous libraries of a streaming site like Hulu can sometimes turn up interesting and valuable stuff—a sort of pocket-sized bastard canon, perhaps.
A good place to start scouring for some free film history is the definitive-sounding Internet Archive, a massive site that purports to offer "Universal access to all knowledge." Its offerings in the realm of feature films are not nearly as far-reaching as that tagline might suggest, but the 14-year-old site is nonetheless a good place to look for silent films and films noir now in the public domain.
A quick glance through the archive turns up Buster Keaton features, Charlie Chaplin shorts, His Girl Friday (also available elsewhere), Anthony Mann's blistering T-Men, and silent films by titans Georges Melies, Louis Feuillade, and F.W. Murnau. Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, starring Edward G. Robinson as a naïve amateur painter, and Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour, a quicker and grimier (if not grimmer) noir, are not quite as lionized as some of the films above, but they're also well worth a look. I can't say whether the archive's versions of all these films are acceptable—Scarlet Street is in a particularly degraded state, though so was the transfer of an out-of-print DVD I watched last year—but just browsing the site's holdings is like a trip into the past.
Foraging for films of some critical stature on Hulu or YouTube's similar movies page, mercifully separated from the wilds of the site proper, can be a regularly dispiriting experience (Point Blank! Wait. No. Not that Point Blank. The Signs of Life available on both sites is early John David Coles, not early Werner Herzog). But titles of interest do turn up. Most of the older films of note on Hulu are minor works by major directors—Orson Welles's Mr. Arkadin and The Stranger and Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes (the latter three films are also available on the Internet Archive)—but that's nothing to scoff at. And neither is seminal British director Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, a 1960 film that links violence and spectatorship in a more effectively unsettling way than almost all of its many successors in that department. It's on Hulu, but it can also be streamed interruption-free on YouTube.
It's probably worth braving those periodic advertisements on Hulu, though, to sample a shaggy Western from the 1970s, what many consider to be Hollywood's most fruitful decade: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the first film written and directed by Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate). David Lynch's The Elephant Man, released on the cusp of the next decade, is on Hulu as well. While Mulholland Drive was not unjustly anointed in many respectable end-of-the-aughts critics' polls, the more straightforward Elephant Man remains one of the director's very best films.
It's also very much worth checking out The Auteurs, a terrifically curated site with a world-cinema focus that charges for most, but not all, of its content. The site's regular free "festivals" culled from the Criterion Collection seem to have stalled out last October. Disappointing, but the site recently introduced a "Film of the Month" feature that will apparently highlight its partnership with the World Cinema Foundation, a venerable nonprofit. Currently available free of charge are the 1960 Korean film The Housemaid and the 1964 Turkish film Dry Summer, both recently restored, long-overlooked films (at least on these shores) that might make interesting counterpoints to the canonical Western European art-house sensations from roughly the same period.
This overview is far from comprehensive, of course. For a much broader, clearer picture of the ocean these various individual streams feed into, there's a terrific Salon article by Andrew O'Hehir from last June, and the Museum of the Moving Image's Moving Image Source site provides a handy list of still other places to watch feature-length films online. Granted, all of the free-and-easy sites mentioned here offer far from perfect viewing experiences, but it's worth acknowledging the growing number of options for adventuresome movie watchers surfing the web for free—though not entirely disposable—viewing.
For a timeline of classic films available online for free, click here.