Invisible Stripes (1939)

Invisible Stripes is (1939) starring George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Jane Bryan and William Holden, is one of those great 1930s movies that lays down some of the rails upon which film noir would soon enough run.

If it's a crime film, if it's a prison film, or if it's a heist film, the chances are that in the Golden Age of the silver screen, this movie may be presented with all the tropes, style and wisdom of film noir.

It's often true, but it also ain't necessarily so. Nobody rushes to call the Falcon films, or the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films film noir ... and yet they deal in crime, conspiracy, and often in the shadows and fog.

The prefiguring of film noir is still quite evident in 1930s cinema. To find it, one can trace the morality of the crimes, cops, robbers, murderers and increasingly, the psychopaths and the teenage tearaways.

Film noir prefiguring aside, Invisible Stripes, directed by Lloyd Bacon is a lot of fun, and acts out that fine 1930s theme of the kids on the street battling with the urge to turn to crime. It's in this environment, that director Lloyd Bacon brings home a few new ideas, including that of the teenage tearaway.

And that tearaway, is committing a certain form of crime, against both the combined moral wealth of the family, and society itself.

The opening of Invisible Stripes is worth the admission price alone ... just to see Humphrey Bogart and George Raft all soaped up and nude, playing a couple of solid prison guys facing their bitterness. Good guy versus recidivism is wrapped up in the fascinating face of George Raft, from beginning to end of Invisible Stripes. George Raft is supposed to be the central character, a guy who is good at heart but whose criminal record means he can't get a job.

However, the third male role in Invisible Stripes, played by a young William Holden, is that of a such a teenage tearaway. The tearaway and the rebel are figures that emerge in a stealthy manner through the film noir period, finding increasingly common and often confused expression in the style.

A more overwrought and unsure example of this character's expression may be found in the 'kid noir' of The Big Night (1951), although better and longer lasting impressions were made in The Wild One (1953), until the character found their high watermark in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). It was no accident that this James Dean classic was directed by film noir mainstay Nicholas Ray

This story finds its expression in a repetitive succession of actions, at which he turns up at jobs, only to find more trouble, prejudice and hatred than he ever did inside the prison.

In a way, Invisible Stripes is a kind of prison movie, because even if the action does not take place there, the entire subject, based on the novel of the same name by Warden Lewis E. Lawes, a fervent crusader for prison reform, seems to want to discuss this.

Anyone that is unconvinced about that will certainly stay to watch Humphrey Bogart who is at his certain and most sarcastic best, and who in 1939 was still coming up and playing the bad guys well.

Placid George Raft leaves prison a happy man

Here Humphrey Bogart is Chuck Martin, a character out of the 1940s in pre-noir 1939. One of his more nasty habits is failing to close the warden's door, on exiting the poor man's office. But he does live the life, seen at one point with a beautiful dame draped over him, effectively lapping up all the treasures of toxic masculinity. 

Bogart's ability to deliver snappy talk is almost unmatchable in film noir; while George Raft wears a placid face and goes from job to job to job, without much variation in his mood or tempo; I think he wore that placid face for twelve years. It is certainly meant to express something that might counter a more criminal and uncontrolled version of masculinity. It is meant to express solidity in the face of all of life's obstacles.

Lloyd Bacon's next tweak is to contrast hone life with prison life in the form of the mom-lover, George Raft who is unmarried and now comes home to his mom as if he never could be.

Virginal, criminal, and fully manly, despite having no girlfriend or motivation to find one; we are supposed to believe that cliff is both.

Much of Invisible Stripes does reflect the sappy stuff of the thirties, the perils men and boys face trying to stay away from crime and provide for their moms in times of difficulty. Humphrey Bogart's character Chuck is also straight up 1930s hubris, a character flaw that melted off in the heat of noir, and transformed into the psychopath.

That is to say that before this period ... and the cusp seems to lie across 1939 and 1940 ... badness was quite straightforward and tended to be a social product, combined with moral failings in men and women. By the time film noir was up and running and had hit the town, sometimes that badness was psychopathic and had no defining logic. Perhaps the whole cycle ended in 1960, with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Even though the analytic powers of the movie work their dankest to come up with an answer ... it was his mother! ... it still seems not sufficient as a response, even though it became society's favourite Freudian solution for a long time.

George Raft in Invisible Stripes plays someone closer to the style paradigm of film noir hero struggling under the hand of fate. Goofing off is something else that had ended by 1940. And Humphrey Bogart expresses this in a series of scenes in which he appears to act out a pure malevolence that is as thrilling as it is alarming.

Meanwhile, George Raft's ex con status brings him rather unconvincingly to lose jobs and get in trouble simply because he is on parole. And it is great fun that Lloyd Bacon stresses the class tensions when some super city posh toffs mistake Tim’s fiancé for a cheap street flower girl, resulting in class fury, teenage tearing away and wild anger that William Holden plays and overplays and plays and overplays again, until we get the message that this is becoming a major social problem.

William Holden as Tim Taylor, the ever angry hood guy who needs his fiancé and girlfriend Peggy more than his manners permit him to articulate, is something of a mad man. George Raft only ever gets emotional when he is trying to control this younger brother and their exchanges are most definitely not film noir. However, this is still something to watch, as the relationship is certainly not that of brother and brother, with George Raft being much more of a father figure here.

It would not be long before Arthur Miller would be trying to codify this generational gap in his plays All My Sons (1947) and Death of Salesman (1949) ... but Arthur Miller was wrong. The teenage issue was not to do with secrets held by adults that would devastate children and change their views of the family forever. The real culprit was morality, and the battle that was waged by the cinema itself, with the family as battlefield.

In Invisible Stripes, there is no subtlety, and the moral is very much: be good and don’t go to prison. 

The difference is that if Invisible Stripes were fully evolved film noir, then the men would be in prison for reasons of fate, form or falsity in how they are treated or perceived. 

And try as he may George Raft cannot for his life get a job. This repeated adventure meanders Invisible Stripes in and out of itself, and doesn't lead to anything, leaving the feeling that we are never going to crack this egg, with the slightest suggestion that society itself might also be a prison; certainly it maintains prison morals.. 

When it does will film noir emerge? Is William Holden a real pre- pro- teenage tearaway? He does go rough housing cigarette mouthed and does get involved in an almighty punch up. The character that would find expression in Rebel Without a Cause twenty years later is barely formed here, but 100% evident nonetheless.

If one of the taproots of film noir is the teenage tearaway, then the question remains as to how old this character is. Odd as it might seem, it’s William Holden’s character who is the real noir root in Invisible Stripes.

There are more bonuses in Invisible Stripes than just this, and many reasons to stay. For example there is huge and crazy almost out-of-control heist shoot out which proves that Lloyd Bacon was the Quentin Tarantino of his time.

This might be the point also to issue the Spoiler Alert for the possibly inappropriate bloodbath ending, which also of course indicates firmly, although not convincingly that  the actually undeserving teenage tearaway comes good and wins when George Raft does nothing but suffer for the duration

William Holden is a fascinating 21 year old actor here however, genuinely unrecognisable from the man who would later play in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

And regarding the lack of stripes in the film . . .  well they are supposed to be invisible . . . a comment from  A New York Times review from 1940 does mention the unusual lack of prison scenes in the film: 

"Let us hasten in all gratitude to add that "Invisible Stripes" is a prison picture in which the stripes are much less visible than usual, most of the action being paroled to the outside in the capable custody of George Raft, Jane Bryan, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. There are no jute mill scenes, no bullying guards, no big prison break sequence; in fact, we don't understand why they've suddenly commuted our sentence from the customary duration of the picture to a brief prison prelude, a mere graduating exercise at the beginning: good behavior, maybe."

Frank S. Nugent (January 13, 1940). "THE SCREEN; David Niven Plays an Unruffled 'Raffles' at the Roxy --Strand Shows 'Invisible Stripes'--New Pix Film". The New York Times.

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