Two Seconds (1932)

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As if anyone needed more proof that Edward G. Robinson was one of the screen’s greatest actors, take Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds (1932) into evidence. It’s a brutal tale about the desperation of the Depression, told through a predatory woman latching onto a decent man and pulling him down to his doom.

The movie opens with a group of reporters and one young sociology student (William Janney) in a prison to observe the execution of Robinson. Along with some psychological mumbo-jumbo, the doctor tells the onlookers that there are two seconds of awareness between the shock of the electric chair and brain death, and two seconds is just enough time for a dying man’s life to flash before his eyes. Which is exactly what happens for the rest of the movie.

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Robinson and his buddy (Preston Foster) are riveters on a skyscraper. In the worst of the Depression they’re making great wages, and Foster adds to his bankroll by betting on the races. Foster is all about instant gratification, blowing his dough on girls and good times, but as dumb as he is with money he’s smart enough to stay out of the clutches of opportunistic women. Robinson wants more out of life, and talks about his new ambitions and ideals as inspired by his perspective from up high above the city. He fancies himself something God-like and superior to the “flies” down there, and will no longer be set up on blind dates with stupid, unattractive women. Foster warns him that this dangerous mix of uncompromising elitism and inexperience with romance will only open him up to a smarter class of con-women, which is exactly what happens.

Ducking out of another blind date, Robinson meets a taxi dancer (Vivienne Osborne), who feeds him a story about being decent, being stuck at J. Carrol Naish’s dance hall, fighting off the sleazy customers’ advances and sending every penny she makes to her poor family in Idaho. She convinces Robinson they’re kindred spirits, that she too wants an education and better life, when all she really aspires to is the security of his hefty paycheck plus whatever supplementary income she can get from “dancing.” Foster instantly has her number but is too late to stop Osborne from getting Robinson drunk and bribing a justice to marry them. Robinson’s life crashes and he loses his dreams, his savings, his dignity and his sanity. The tragedy gets operatic as Foster dies in a workplace accident and Osborne gets her comeuppance.

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This story and film have flaws and excesses, but Robinson’s performance is perfect. When he declares his new highfalutin philosophy from a high skyscraper beam, he dismissively waves at those puny little dots down on street level and disparages his great job where he creates real things, at a time when most people have nothing. He comes off sounding more like he’s confused by a quarter-life crisis. He’s blunt and opinionated about women’s decency and proper jobs, but he leers at the floor show dancers in a nightclub, proving there’s always a market for those services. When Osborne seems to understand him and awakens his interest, he chuckles bashfully and looks away coquettishly; he’s hooked but insists he can’t be fooled by any woman. He can live with the sham marriage and evil wife whose guts he hates, but he snaps when Osborne lures Foster’s nice girl into a life of ill repute. When Robinson finally rights his life and puts a stop to Osborne’s evil, his values and priorities are all over the map. He refuses to plead temporary insanity or justifiable homicide, on the logic that he needs no defense for a good deed and a return to being a real man. It’s a wonderful performance with many light touches in one of the darkest stories of fate and the Depression that I’ve ever seen. You know from the start Robinson is dying in that electric chair but the movie wrings suspense out of telling you how he got there and even gets you hoping he can avoid it.

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Foster is good reprising the role he played on stage. He’s sharp and well-intentioned and likable no matter how much he harangues Robinson about Osborne’s true nature. And no matter how honorable Osborne pretends to be in those early scenes, she shows you something is off; like a phony fortune teller she’s always assessing Robinson’s reaction and adjusting her story to hook him. Once she’s got that wedding ring on (she puts it on herself, which says it all) the mask comes off this confident predator and heartless shrew. She mocks Robinson about Foster’s death, berates him for being a worthless coward when he’s too rattled to work at heights, and asks if he happens to have life insurance. Guy Kibbee appears twice as a bookie, and hardly says anything the second time but follows Robinson around his flat trying to decipher his ravings about Foster sending him race tips from beyond the grave and the big winnings being more than enough to settle all accounts and stop Osborne for good.

There are many memorable images and devices, foremost being the loud hum of the electric chair that transitions into the flashback and becomes the noise of the riveting gun. Robinson’s yelling as he watches Foster fall to his death blends into a sound like a combined site alert and screams of horror from the street. In Robinson’s last big courtroom scene, cinematographer Sol Polito has everyone in pitch dark, with spotlighting first on the judge’s face and then just on Robinson’s as he explains himself, pleads for his life, rants and breaks down, at which point the light drains away and we go back to the humming of the electric chair and Janney’s horrified face. Two Seconds is a hard punch of a movie with enough idealism and undeserved misery to give Robinson material for one of his finest performances.

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12 thoughts on “Two Seconds (1932)”

  1. The first time I saw this it was moving along, very routine Warner’s pre-Code, then Robinson grabbed me by the throat and escalated his performance throughout the last 20 minutes or so of the movie. Absolutely blew me away! It’s hard not to sit up and realize you’re watching something special at that point, he was so on! One of my favorites for that last little bit alone.

    1. Yes he was stunning! I was struck by those little things he does (like at the nightclub staring at the dancers) that are easy to miss, as much as the big moments and the huge courtroom scene. I am sure I became aware of this one in one of your month previews and your blog post on it, so thanks for recommending it!

    1. Good cast, I last saw Vivienne Osborne in Supernatural, small part, but here she was so good as the nasty witch, wonder why she didn’t have a bigger career. For her (and Foster too) to make a mark in a movie where Robinson has this juicy a role is saying something.

  2. Stunning intensity in Robinson’s face and eyes in this one as he is on the stand. Check out Robinson in House Of Strangers with Richard Conte in the “visit to jail scene” and Robinson with Lancaster in All My Sons, “the heart to heart father/son talk.” Another great scene with Robinson is in “The Sea Wolf” as the ship goes down with Alexander Knox. The scene in “Blackmail” with Robnson and Gene Lockhart at the end with the oil well is very intense also.

    Every scene shows the fire in the eyes and the incredible face intensity so few actors can pull off. It is either over done or underplayed, Robinson gets it right every time. I am closing in on 75 EGR movies, sad to say there are a few out there that can never be obtained. Eddy G, just a tremendous actor, he actually makes the other actors around him better. That is the true test of any great actor, the ability to bring the level of your costars to a higher level. Robinson never fails the test.

    Hope you are well Kristina 🙂

    1. He was just wonderful in this and as you say he elevated his costars and the material, on its own this movie would not be as powerful but his acting was super. I do love HOUSE OF STRANGERS, he’s excellent in that and the whole movie is an underappreciated noir. BLACKMAIL is the only one you mention here that I haven’t watched yet and I just got that off TCM a couple weeks ago so hope to watch it soon.
      Thanks so much John, nice to read your thoughts, and best to you too, drop by more often!

    1. I would say if you love Robinson then yes, it’s a must. Whenever I think of the greatest actors I always come back to him and Spencer Tracy. They never “acted” you know, hit you over the head with ti, but were always riveting.

  3. I just watched this film for Saturday’s History Project Blogathon. (I’m looking at early portrayals of taxi dancers.) As you noted, Robinson’s acting was impressive, and Vivienne Osborne isn’t too bad either. Not sure why she didn’t become a bigger star. I also liked the use of sound in the film. Most scenes transitioned with a loud noise (the rivet gun as you mentioned, the spitting soda machine, the squeaking radio, the humming fan) to constantly remind us that Robinson is on the chair. Morbid, perhaps, but very cool film making device.

    Since my post is primarily focusing on the taxi dancer aspect of the film, would you mind if I link back to your post so readers can get the full summary of the movie?

    1. No I don’t mind at all, thanks for reading and wanting to do that, I appreciate it. You’re right, the use of sound was not just fitting of a big city and construction but in a few places is like something that would wake you from a dream, I really liked how that was used as a thread. I though Osborne was really good too, she went from sweet to cruel in no time flat, and just humiliated him! Poor guy. Looking forward to your post for the blogathon, and thanks again!

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