Invisible Stripes (1939)

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) is a small-time criminal released on parole after a year in prison. He insists that he learned his lesson and that he won’t turn to a life of crime again. Chuck Martin (Humphrey Bogart), released at the same time, scoffs at Cliff’s notions of the straight-and-narrow. He’s been in and out of prison a couple of times, and he’s found there’s no way to escape the “invisible stripes” every convict wears.

Cliff soon comes to understand just what Chuck meant. His girlfriend breaks it off, not wanting to associate with one such as him, and Cliff can’t hold a job because his parole requirements make him unfit for certain jobs or his bosses and co-workers don’t trust him. As if that wasn’t enough, his younger brother Tim (a baby-faced and almost unrecognisable William Holden) seems hell-bent on following in Cliff’s footsteps; he has developed a temper, which eventually causes him to lose his job as well. Another meeting with Chuck sets in motion the rest of the plot, which, with the Hays Code in full force, can only end one way.

The DVD is part of the fourth Warner Gangster box set, but Invisible Stripes is no ordinary gangster or prison movie. It’s more aptly described as a social problem film, a somewhat unusual genre for Warner Bros. in 1939. Its topic is the criminal justice system and how it sabotages the rehabilitation of repentant criminals. It’s a bit preachy, but at the same time not really trenchant enough to make much of an impact. It doesn’t help that the plot takes a predictable but still unfortunate turn into generic gangster film territory towards the end, with a “crime doesn’t pay” ending that somewhat undercuts the earlier social criticism theme.

Acting-wise, Holden portrays the pent-up anger and frustration of his character quite well. Raft, unfortunately, doesn’t. He really only has one facial expression throughout the movie, and two tones of voice. Invisible Stripes is the only one of his early films I’ve seen, though I gather he usually portrayed tough guys. This departure from his usual routine seems like a failure to me.

Despite only appearing in a secondary role, the best performance and the most interesting character comes in the form of Bogart’s Chuck, a jaded criminal not exactly with a heart of gold, but still with a sense of decency and loyalty. I can’t really recommend the film on this basis alone, since Bogart played variations on this character in many of his later movies, so it’s not much of a novelty. But the film on the whole is not bad, just a bit schizophrenic and unable to live up to its potential.


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