The biggest film streaming platforms around today have a fairly abysmal offering of classic films. If you type Adam Sandler into the Netflix search bar, 20 films are returned. Conversely, if you search for films from the 1950s you will get only five results. The case is similar for any decade before the 1980s. On Amazon Prime, things are almost as bleak. You can stream the Hangover trilogy for free, whilst The Godfather trilogy is notably absent. Again, the further back in film history you travel, the slimmer the pickings you will find. However, for the more determined film fanatic, there are a few gems hidden amongst the mid-2000s blockbusters. Below is a list of the best pre-1970s classic cinematic works currently available to stream with Amazon Prime Video.
An unofficial adaption of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror, Dracula, this film was ordered destroyed over copyright infringement. However, copies survived and Nosferatu came to be regarded as a cornerstone of horror, influencing the genre for the following century. The plot follows a vampire, Count Orlok, who travels from Transylvania to Germany in search of a new residence, and fresh blood.
This is a prime example of German expressionist cinema, the focus clearly on feelings rather than reality. The film is unsettling, though of course, modern audiences won’t be as terrified of Orlok as those of the time. Arguably, Max Shrek in full makeup looks far creepier than the CGI villains of the 2010s, and the image of Orlok’s silhouette inching up the staircase will forever be an iconic moment of horror cinema.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
One of the few Hitchcock directed films available on Prime, this British noir thriller surrounds a married couple who become aware of an assassination attempt and find that their daughter has been kidnapped to stop them from acting to prevent it. Though perhaps not one of Hitchcock’s best works, it is one of his most accessible.
The plot has enough twists to remain interesting to the end but stops short of being so convoluted as to lose sense of itself as many films of this genre often do. Hitchcock remade this film in 1956, though the plot was changed significantly and much of the grit of the original was lost.
In Stagecoach you will find a grand western adventure within which lies an intimate drama. Directed by John Ford, a goliath from the golden age of Hollywood, this film pits an unlikely band of mismatched travellers against the spectre of Geronimo, an Apache leader hot on their tail. In his role as the outlaw Ringo Kid, John Wayne was catapulted to fame, quickly becoming part of the American zeitgeist as the defining western figure.
The interactions of the stagecoach’s travellers who start off as strangers but end their journey bound by their shared experience transcend the genre. Whilst aspects of this film are questionable to a modern audience, primarily the depiction of Indians as savages, a problem that most classic westerns perpetuate, it is unrivalled in its portrayal of the American character.
His Girl Friday (1940)
One genre that streaming platforms are saturated with is comedy. Good comedy, though, the kind that is both clever and hilarious, rather than moronic and base, is thin on the ground on Prime. An exception comes in the form of His Girl Friday. In this early rom-com, a newspaper editor (Cary Grant) attempts to keep his ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) from remarrying by distracting her with a tempting scoop. Directed by another titan, Howard Hawks, this film is certainly a classic.
This is rapid-fire comedy at its sharpest, and Hawks actually wanted to break the record for fastest film dialogue. Films concerning journalists tend to be hard-hitting serious affairs, but His Girl Friday provides a much lighter approach to the genre that still manages to tackle serious themes of justice, love, and gender roles. Much like Stagecoach, the handling of race is poor and does taint this film. This is even more frustrating because it is more progressive in other aspects, advancing the role of women in the male-dominated newspaper industry.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
More modern than the other films of this list, but still from a decade severely underrepresented by streaming services is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Discounting White Zombie, this is the first true zombie movie and one to which all those that came later owe a debt. Following an ambiguous radiation-related disaster, the dead rise from their graves and aim to kill and eat any unfortunate souls that cross their path.
Almost five decades on from Nosferatu, the horror genre has advanced in so many respects while keeping the same core tenets. The slow onward march of the undead is not dissimilar from that of Count Orlok. But this horror milestone also brings so much to the genre that is new. The claustrophobic cabin in the woods setting will be seen countless times in horror flicks of later years until it becomes a meta-trope in a film literally titled Cabin in the Woods.
It will always be in Romero’s debut that this was most effectively deployed. The human drama within the farmhouse becomes just as dramatic as the undead human drama without, as those holed up together grow tense and the night draws on, it becomes apparent that the villains of the piece may not only be the undead.
It is in classic cinema where many of the innovative themes and effects that have since become tired and overused were born. It was there that originality held sway, experimentation was king, and Adam Sandler was not even a twinkle. Sure, the big streaming services have a strong selection of good films from the modern era, but if you look hard enough, you can also unearth a select few from an earlier time which are truly great.
Words by Steven Ross