Saturday 16 March 2019

Movie Review: Invisible Stripes (1939)

A gangster drama, Invisible Stripes examines the lingering stigma of prison and the ever attractive shortcuts to riches offered by crime.

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) and Charles Martin (Humphrey Bogart) are released from New York's Sing Sing prison on the same day. Cliff still has a year on parole, but regrets his criminal past and is intent on living a straight life. Charles has a more jaundiced view of society and quickly seeks out his old mobster buddies and reenters the crime world.

Cliff reconnects with his mother (Flora Robson) and younger brother Tim (William Holden), a car mechanic who is engaged to Peggy (Jane Bryan). Tim is financially struggling, hot headed and eager to live the good life. Cliff has to talk him down from thinking about crime as a quick pathway to riches, but Cliff himself finds life as a parolee difficult, as employers are unwilling to trust him. The option of joining Charles' criminal exploits becomes more difficult to dismiss.

The title refers to the stench of prison garb enduring upon release, and what Invisible Stripes lacks in originality it more than makes up for in polish. This is Warner Bros. studio at their absolute sweet spot, director Lloyd Bacon delivering a straightforward and compact crime drama with a mix of established and future stars. Morality, repentance, family, social barriers, bank hold-ups, shootouts and the eternal dilemma of choosing between good and evil are wrapped into a tidy 80 minute package.

The film is based on a novel by real-life warden Lewis E. Lawes, a proponent of prison reform, and Invisible Stripes invests well-meaning effort in exploring the tricky seam between good intentions and societal barriers. Both the warden and Cliff's parole officer are on his side and want him to succeed, but trust for an ex-con is in short supply among business owners, factory workers and yard bosses. Despite Cliff's best intentions and notwithstanding the Taylor brothers' short tempers, he is more pushed back rather than pulled into the orbit of crime in order to survive.

The cast members easily fit into the material. George Raft is in his element and immediately convincing, while Humphrey Bogart generates his own electricity fuelled by abrasive resentment. In his second major role, William Holden is relatively bland and superficial compared to his more weathered co-stars. Jane Bryan as his generic girl gets one scene to shine, bumping up against the dreams and reality of rich society.

On a sour casting note, Flora Robson is asked to play Raft's mother despite being six months younger, and there is an ickiness to the excessive nuzzling between mother and son.

The stripes are invisible, but the film's overall slick proficiency is on clear display.

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