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.
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.
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.
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.