55 Free Crime Movies in the Public Domain

55 Free Crime Movies in the Public Domain

September 29, 2021 0 By Stoudman

This post provides details about free crime movies that are currently in the public domain. Our list will include spy films, gangster films, and even film noir adjacent titles which are free and legal to watch. We will also offer information about how each film became public domain whenever possible.

Some of the titles on this post can also be found on other public domain movie lists on our site. That said, we do our best to keep each list as original as possible. Since the film noir movement was so influential to (and influenced by) crime films, we recommend checking our list of free film noir movies as well.


 1. Flying Blind

This movie goes off the rails almost immediately. Watch as a spy steals a military MacGuffin, hijacks a plane, and crashes in the wilderness only to be met by a forest fire. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this movie, and it’s not very highly rated. When the copyright was not renewed, this film became public domain.

 


2. Inside the Lines

Although this pre-code crime film focuses on the politics of WW1, it earns a spot on this list because it’s an early spy film. Believe it or not, this 1930 film was actually a remake of a movie produced in 1918. As with other movies of this era, this movie is public domain because its copyright was never renewed.

 


3. Algiers (1938)

Starring Charles Boyer (Gaslight) and Hedy Lamarr (Dishonored Lady), this is one of the better titles on our list. The main character, a jewel thief named Pepe le Moko, inspired the Looney Tunes character Pepe le Pew. This movie became public domain in 1966 because its copyright was not renewed.

 


4. Beat the Devil

This is one of the titles we also have listed on our list of 50 free comedy movies in the public domain. Beat the Devil was directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and stars Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place). The screenplay was written by none other than Truman Capote (In Cold Blood). 

Humphrey Bogart plays a man reluctantly working with criminals to get land in British East Africa. Due to the undercurrent of crime in this film, it earns a spot on this list. Like many others on our list, this movie became public domain when its copyright was not renewed.

 


5. Conspiracy (1930)

When their father is murdered, a brother and sister work together to stop the gang responsible for his death. There’s not much of note about this pre-code mystery/crime film, and it actually lost money in theaters. That said, it is free to enjoy because the copyright was never renewed and this movie became public domain.

 


6. The Man With the Golden Arm

This is one of the titles we also cover in our list of free film noir movies in the public domain. Directed by Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder), this is one of the best free crime movies on our list. The Man With the Golden Arm tells the story of a drug addict trying to stay clean after leaving prison.

The main character is played by none other than Frank Sinatra (The Manchurian Candidate). Co-stars include Kim Novak (Vertigo), Eleanor Parker (The Sound of Music) and others. As with many other films on our list, this one became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


7. The Pay-Off

Although there isn’t much to say about this pre-code crime film, at least reviews aren’t terrible. Director Lowell Sherman also starred in the main role alongside Marian Nixon and Hugh Trevor. None of these actors or filmmakers really worked on any other notable projects. Even so, this movie is public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


8. Wives Under Suspicion

Directed by James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man), this is a pretty decent early crime movie. This film tells the story of a prosecutor trying an adultery case who begins suspecting his own wife of adultery. When the copyright for this movie was not renewed, it became public domain.

 


9. Copkiller (1983)

This is one of the more interesting titles on our list, because it’s an Italian crime thriller. This movie also stars Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs) and John Lydon, lead singer of the Sex Pistols. The music was composed by none other than Ennio Morricone. Copkiller is often cited as a precursor to Bad Lieutenant.

Although we don’t know exactly how this movie became public domain, there are a few factors to consider. The first issue is that this movie was initially released in Italy and then re-released under different names internationally. Copkiller does not have an active copyright on file in the United States. That said, the versions that are public domain are not complete.

 


10. Baby Face Morgan

This is another case where there is no known copyright on file for the film. While we don’t know how or when it became public domain, it should be legal to enjoy the film for free. There’s nothing remarkable about this early gangster movie, but it’s not the worst rated of our free crime movies.

 


11. Cry of the Innocent

Starring Rod Taylor (Inglourious Basterds) and Joana Petter (Casino Royale), this made-for-tv movie is now public domain. We don’t know how or why this happened, but there is no active copyright on file for the film. Reviews weren’t kind to Cry of the Innocent, but it’s not the worst reviewed of our free crime movies.

 


12. Desperate Cargo

Starring Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy) and Carol Hughes (D.O.A.), this crime drama is fairly unremarkable. That said, reviews for this movie aren’t entirely terrible. Director William Beaudine was better known as a tv director for shows like Lassie and The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Desperate Cargo is in the public domain because its copyright was never renewed.

 


13. Eyes in the Night

This film follows a blind detective who uncovers a Nazi plot while investigating a murder. Edward Arnold (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Donna Reed (It’s a Wonderful Life) turn in solid performances. Directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), this is one of the better rated free crime movies. As with many others, this film became public domain when the copyright holder neglected to renew their copyright.

 


14. The Fast and the Furious (1954)

Modern audiences are probably more familiar with the series of films inspired by this title. That said, there’s nothing about this movie that is directly connected to the present-day franchise. This film tells the tale of a man framed for murder who makes a run for the border. If anything, it has more in common with The Chase (1994) starring Charlie Sheen. This is yet another case where the movie became public domain when its copyright was not renewed.

 


15. Great Guy

This classic crime drama stars one of the biggest names of the genre, James Cagney (Angels With Dirty Faces). Starring alongside him was Mae West (Frankenstein) and James Burke (The Maltese Falcon). That all being said, there’s a reason you haven’t heard of this one, as it wasn’t very well received. Even so, with star power like this, it’s difficult to pass up! This is another case where the copyright was not renewed and it became public domain.
 


16. The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery

This was one of the few fictional films directed by Charles Guggenheim, who would become far better known for his documentaries. Even if it wasn’t his best work, this movie did include the star power of Steve McQueen (Bullitt). As with many other free crime movies, this one became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.
 


17. Jail Bait (1954)

Directed by the legendary Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space), this is objectively one of the worst free crime movies on our list. Even so, there’s something very admirable about the work of this maverick filmmaker. Even if it’s not great, we recommend checking this one out at least once. This is yet another case where the copyright was not renewed and the movie became public domain.

 


18. The Mandarin Mystery (1936)

This is anything but a memorable film, so you’ve probably never heard of it before. The Mandarin Mystery was Directed by Ralph Staub, who was best known for the Screen Snapshots shorts that would play before a feature film. Although he would go on to make several other films in the 30s, he never really directed anything of note. Perhaps due to its lack of notoriety, this movie became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


19. The Moonstone (1934)

This is another unremarkable crime drama from the mid-30’s from Monogram Pictures. Part whodunit, part old dark house, this film focuses on an investigator trying to find a stolen gem. Perhaps due to its poor ratings, the copyright for this movie was never renewed and it became public domain.

 


20. Mr. Moto’s Last Warning

This is one of many films in the Mr. Moto series starring Peter Lorre (The Man Who Knew Too Much). It’s also one of the most broadcast of the series, as its copyright was not renewed and it became public domain. Although it’s not the best rated of all the free crime movies on our list, it’s pretty well received. If you want to get a taste for what to expect from Mr. Moto movies, this is a decent introduction.

 


21. Mr. Wong, Detective

This is one of at least two movies in the Mr. Wong series which is in the public domain. Starring Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), fans of the actor might want to see this one. That said, we should mention the now obvious issues with a white actor playing an Asian character. Sadly, this was a practice which ran rampant at the time in Hollywood. Regardless, this one fell into the public domain because its copyright was never renewed.

 


22. The Mystery of Mr. Wong

This is the other major Mr. Wong film which is also in the public domain. Once again, the main character is played by none other than Boris Karloff (The Mummy). Although this movie isn’t especially well-rated, it isn’t the worst received title on our list of free crime movies. As you might expect, this is another case where the copyright was not renewed and it became public domain.

 


23. Nancy Drew… Reporter

 Based of course on the classic series of novels, this film is actually pretty well rated. Even so, none of the actors went on to do much of anything of note. If you’re a fan of the books, you at least owe it to yourself to see what Nancy Drew looks like on film. This movie became public domain when its copyright was not renewed.

 


24. A Study in Scarlet (1933)

As the title implies, this is based on the Sherlock Holmes story of the same name. This time around, Reginald Owen (Mary Poppins) plays the lead role of Sherlock. Sadly, this isn’t one of the better rated films on our list of free crime movies. Even so, this one became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


25. Dressed to Kill (1946)

Not to be confused with the Brian De Palma film, this movie is based on a popular Sherlock Holmes story. This is one of many Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone in the lead role. Many consider these movies to be among the best adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle on film. In this case, the film became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


26. Silver Blaze (1937)

This is another film based on a famous Sherlock Holmes story. Starring the original face of Sherlock, Arthur Wontner, this is one of the earlier depictions of the detective on film. When it was released in the United States, the title was changed to Murder at the Baskervilles. Neither title currently has an active copyright on file, and it is very likely its copyright lapsed many years ago.

 

 


27. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

This is another Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film, and it’s pretty well-rated. You can expect to find quite a few of these Rathbone Sherlock movies on our list, because many of them lack an active copyright. As with most free crime movies, this one became public domain when its copyright was not renewed.

 


28. Terror by Night (1946)

Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be happy to see yet another Basil Rathbone film to watch. This is one of the better rated free crime movies on our list. The copyright for this film was not renewed and it became public domain many years ago. That said, please keep in mind that modern prints from the studio likely are under copyright. The version listed here is free and legal to enjoy.

 


29. The Woman in Green (1945)

This is another excellent Sherlock Holmes tale featuring Basil Rathbone in the lead role. As with many other movies in this series, The Woman in Green is very well-rated. Once again, this is another case where the film became public domain when its copyright was not renewed.

 


30. They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

Starring Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), this is one of the best rated free crime movies on our list. This is also part of the Dead End Kids movie series which was quite popular at the time. The copyright for this film was never renewed and it became public domain as a result.

 


31. The World Gone Mad (1933)

A district attorney is murdered after uncovering a case of stock fraud, sparking an investigation into the crime. Sadly, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this movie, and it is not very well-rated. That said, you can expect starring roles from Pat O’Brien (Some Like it Hot) and Neil Hamilton (Batman).

 


32. Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937)

Modern audiences might not be familiar, but there were a lot of Bulldog Drummond movies in the 30’s. Thankfully, you can learn more about the series for free, as many of these movies are in the public domain. Another nice thing about this franchise is that most of these films are pretty decent. After being sold to Congress Films, all original copyright notices were removed and this movie became public domain.

 


33. Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge (1937)

This is one of the worst rated films in the Bulldog Drummond series, but it’s not the most unimpressive title on our list of free crime movies. Bulldog makes his way to Switzerland to marry his girlfriend, but those plans are delayed by a crime. As with all the others, this movie became public domain because its copyright notices were removed.

 


34. Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)

This is another Bulldog Drummond movie in the public domain. Each of them became free crime movies due to a lack of copyright notices and a failure to renew the original copyright. John Barrymore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) stars alongside John Howard (The Philadelphia Story) in the lead role. 

 


35. Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (1938)

This is yet another case where the copyright notices were removed and it became public domain as a result. In terms of quality, this one falls right in the middle of the series and isn’t particularly noteworthy. This was the last Bulldog Drummond film starring John Barrymore due to his issues with alcoholism. He would later be replaced with H.B. Warner (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).

 


36. Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938)

As with every other Bulldog Drummond movie on our list, this one became public domain due to a lack of copyright notices. It’s worth noting that this series of films included performances from a few somewhat notable actors. Heather Angel voice acted in Disney’s Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. She was also in two Hitchcock films of note, Suspicion and Lifeboat. In the Bulldog Drummond films, she played the detective’s girlfriend (and eventually wife) Phyllis Clavering.

 


37. Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1938)

Much like all the other Bulldog Drummond movies, this one is public domain because its copyright notices were removed. The plot of this story sounds like it came from a much later film, as it focuses on an atomic disintegrator. That kind of plot device was quite common in the 50’s and 60’s, but not so much in the 30’s. Perhaps as a result, the ratings for this film are a bit better than others in the series.

 


38. Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (1939)

Just like all the others, this movie became public domain when its copyright notices were removed. In addition to regular performances from Heather Angel, H.B. Warner also had a starring role as Colonel Nielson. Warner was perhaps best known for his role as none other than Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. He also had relatively important roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

 


39. Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police (1939)

We’re past the halfway point of Bulldog Drummond films on our list of free crime movies. As we previously mentioned, all of these movies became public domain because their copyright notices were removed. This one is slightly better rated than the others, but only by a relatively small amount. Still, it’s hard to say no to an entirely free movie!

 


40. And Then There Were None (1945)

Based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, this might be the best rated film on our list of free crime movies. This is the classic tale of several guests invited to an old dark house only to start dropping like flies. Fans of the mystery genre owe it to themselves to watch this one! As with many other films from this era, the studio allowed their copyright to lapse and it became public domain.
 


41. The Death Kiss (1932)

Starring the incomparable Bela Lugosi (Dracula), this movie is actually a case of Hollywood playing itself. The plot revolves around a murder that takes place on a film set! The Death Kiss became public domain when its copyright was not renewed. That being said, there is a modern Kino Lorber print which is still under copyright. The version listed here is both free and legal to enjoy.
 


42. The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

This is one of the earlier films directed by Michael Curtiz, who had a pretty illustrious career. He would go on to direct beloved classics such as Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood. This movie became public domain when the studio neglected to renew their copyright. This is one of the better rated films on our list of free crime movies.

 


43. Lady of Burlesque (1943)

This film stars none other than Barbara Stanwyck, one of the first major femme fatales. Most audiences will recognize her from Double Indemnity, a quintessential film noir title. As you might have guessed, this movie became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


44. Midnight Manhunt (1945)

The tag line for this film called it a “weird wacky who-dun-it in a wax museum.” It’s not the best rated title on our list of free crime movies. The premise clearly borrows from several other popular films of the era. There were a few notable actors performing in this one; Ann Savage was perhaps best known for her role in Detour. Leo Gorcey played a cab driver in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Midnight Manhunt became public domain because its copyright was not renewed.

 


45. Murder on the Campus (1933)

After a young woman is accused of murder, her boyfriend sets out to prove her innocence. There’s nothing remarkable about this title, but it isn’t the worst rated film on our list of free crime movies. When the studio neglected to renew their copyright, this film became public domain.
 


46. Mystery Liner (1934)

The script for this movie was written by Edgar Wallace, who just the year before wrote and directed King Kong. Sadly, it wasn’t particularly well rated, and the plot is somewhat simplistic. That said, there were a few notable actors in this movie. Astrid Allwyn went on to star in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Love Affair. Edwin Maxwell was also a fairly prominent name, having starred in Scarface and His Girl Friday. Mystery Liner became public domain when its copyright was not renewed.

 


47. One Body Too Many (1944)

This horror comedy finds its way onto our list of free crime movies because of its subject matter. An insurance investigator comes to an old dark house to sell life insurance to a millionaire. Little does he know that the man is already dead and his heirs are reading the will! Hijinks quickly ensue in this classic who-dun-it starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula). When the copyright for this movie was not renewed, it fell into the public domain.

 


48. One Frightened Night (1935)

This movie borrows elements from the old dark house subgenre, and it’s not too poorly rated. The film stars Charley Grapewin (The Wizard of Oz) and Wallace Ford (Shadow of a Doubt) just to name a few. Although we don’t know exactly how it became public domain, there is no active copyright on file for One Frightened Night.

 


49. A Scream in the Night (1935)

Although Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) has a minor role in this film, it’s an otherwise forgettable title. Believe it or not, this is one of the most poorly rated films on our list of free crime movies. Even though it was made in 1935, this movie was not officially released until 1943. It’s one of the first cases where a studio bought a film to capitalize on the popularity of a major star. Unfortunately, it would appear they never bothered to renew their copyright, as there is no active copyright on file.

 


50. International Crime (1938)

Lamont Cranston tries his best to catch a brazen criminal on the run in this mostly unimpressive crime drama. This film is based on the character of The Shadow, which was very popular at the time. Aside from a decent performance from Astrid Allwyn (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), there’s not much else to note about this film. We don’t know how it became public domain, but there is no active copyright on file.

 


51. The Shadow Strikes (1937)

The Shadow was a wildly popular character during this era, but the movies based on his stories were never very impressive. Even so, fans of the franchise won’t want to miss this opportunity to see a silver screen adaptation of Lamont Cranston. Although we don’t know how this one became public domain, there is no active copyright.

 


52. A Shriek in the Night (1933)

With a cast including Ginger Rogers (Monkey Business) and Lyle Talbot (Ozzie & Harriet), it’s unfortunate this movie is so unremarkable. Although it’s not the worst rated film on our list of free crime movies, it’s also not the best. This is another case where the studio neglected to renew their copyright and the movie became public domain.

 


53. The Sphinx (1933)

This pre-code crime drama isn’t particularly noteworthy, but at least it’s entirely free to enjoy! Distributed by Monogram Pictures, they would eventually recycle this script for another movie called Phantom Killer in 1942. While we don’t know how this became public domain, we do know there is no active copyright for the film. This is the case for a lot of early Monogram titles, so it’s not entirely shocking to see.

 


54. Svengali (1931)

John Barrymore plays a hypnotist who uses his powers for evil instead of good. This movie probably also belongs on our horror list, because it’s a pretty important title for the genre. This is also one of the highest rated films on our list of free crime movies. We’re not sure how this one became public domain, but there’s no active copyright for the film.

 


55. The Thirteenth Guest (1932)

Based on the novel written by Armitage Trail (Scarface), this is another somewhat forgettable crime drama. That said, it is another film featuring Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot (A Shriek in the Night). This movie became public domain because its copyright was never renewed by the studio.

 


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Resources to Find Free Crime Movies in the Public Domain

There are a lot of crime movies in the public domain which haven’t been discovered yet. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of sources on the internet that will make false claims about a film’s copyright status. We do a lot of research to determine the legal status of movies, but we can’t catch them all.

A shot from the public domain film 'And Then There Were None.' Source: Wikimedia.

Whether you’d like to help out or you just want to find some more free crime movies to watch, these resources should help. We recommend confirming the status of a copyright before making any decisions about how to use public domain content.

Keep in mind that the only definitive sources will be the US Copyright Office and the Library of Congress. It’s also worth noting that this list is not exhaustive. As we dig deeper into the world of the public domain, we’ll undoubtedly add more resources to this list.


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