Two Seconds (1932) Review, with Edward G. Robinson and Vivienne Osborne

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John Allen
Edward G. Robinson
Shirley Day
Vivienne Osborne
Bud Clark
Preston Foster
Released by Warner Bros. | Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Run time: 68 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • There’s a surprisingly detailed discussion of electrocution death.
  • “I ain’t gonna live with no lily!”
  • When Bud gets distracted early in the movie, he gets hot to pick up a pair of prostitutes.
  • “Come home sober!”
Shirley also slips out of her clothes to consummate her wedding ASAP in the film.
  • The marriage in this film may be one of the most toxic put to film; it’s founded on gold digging and sustained through prostitution.
  • “Alright big boy, what do I look like now?”
    “Exactly what you are.”
  • You empathize with a murderer.

Two Seconds: Bugs and Rats

“It ain’t fair to let a rat live and kill a man! It don’t make sense!”

I never knew where Two Seconds was going, which is an impressive feat for a film that starts with its protagonist being led to the electric chair.

John Allen (Robinson) is a nice guy with airs. His best friend and roommate, Bud (Foster), work on the girders high above New York City building skyscrapers. The height will make the fall more spectacular. John is the kind of guy who muses this at the film’s beginning, with no sense of foreboding:

“You know, you get up here and look down on them… you get a different slant on the whole thing. They only seem like a crawling bunch of little flies. Look at them crawling down there. The banker and the lawyer and the fancy dame… all the rest of them thinking they’re doing big things, making speeches and getting into the papers and cheating and hating each other… I bet your god gets a big laugh out this whole world.”

John’s belief in his own superiority immediately runs him into trouble. In a dance hall, he meets Shirley, who is getting into rows with handsy customers. John thinks that she’s complaining about the men’s behavior; she’s actually complaining about the price. When she learns that John makes a healthy salary and seems pretty easy to push around to boot, she gets him trashed and, in one brutal moment, married. He’s too drunk to say “I do”, but she gives the priest $10 to overlook that little lapse.

There’s a brief moment where this marriage seems like it could work out, but that’s only because John can’t admit that his belief that Shirley was a classy dame is a complete falsehood. Bud objects strenuously to the union, putting John in a bind between his best friend and new wife. Seeing himself as infallible, he can’t reconcile Shirley’s actions with his glowing faith in her and a tragedy happens. Shirley has discovered that being married has given her a better bargaining position (“I’ve found out a ‘Mrs.’ can get away with all kinds of things a ‘Miss’ can’t.”). John, an emotional wreck, concedes to let his wife pay for things– even though it’s pretty clear how she’s doing it.

There are so many moments of casual brutality that compose Two Seconds, a movie about pride hollowing a man from the inside out. Shirley is such an interesting wolf in sheep’s clothing, a woman who will do just about anything to simply survive and, when the opportunity presents itself ,thrive. She lobs venom at John. When he’s at his lowest, paralyzed by guilt and self-pity, she pointedly asks, “By the way, have you got any life insurance?”

John is an interesting study, a man whose aspirations blind and destroy him. There are threads of how his attachment to his masculinity and surety doom him, twist him, and spit him out. His friendship with Bud frames the film; Bud is more carefree with his money and attentions, which John scoffs at. But Bud is street smart, and he knows that Shirley plays John like a piano. They’re a good compliment to one another, but once the equilibrium is gone, it’s gone.

The direction from Mervyn LeRoy grows increasingly claustrophobic as the film wears on, ending in a blackened courtroom with just a spotlight on Robinson’s melting face. The finale has been called out by practically everyone (see below) for the intensity of Robinson’s crazed performance, rightfully so. While the movie’s structure is just a bit too unbalanced– it takes a while to fully start the descent– when all of its pieces come together in the final twenty minutes, it becomes an vivid, haunting nightmare.

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

  • Streamline (formerly Movie Morlocks) has a really appreciation from Moira Finnie. This includes one thing about the movie I found myself unsure of even mentioning:

Btw, the marketing of Two Seconds on the poster at the top of this post claims that the movie was bringing audiences “Edward G. Robinson in his first great love drama!” could not be farther from the tone of this film. The only tenderness and love on display is that of the two friends played by Robinson and Foster. There is a hint that the closeness between the two men has a “cleanness”, as Robinson’s character describes it, that suggests a trace of a homoerotic attachment.

The various glimpses of an unenviable existence are set forth with no little truth. […] The dialogue is crisp and natural, and when Mr. Robinson depicts the nerveracked condition of Allen or delivers a heated talk to the judge who sentences him, his acting is unusually impressive. In spite of its drab tale, it calls forth admiration, for it never falters.

But Osborne and the rest really are just extra flavor, Two Seconds is all Robinson. He’s the entire attraction here.  It’s not a subtle performance by any means.  No, it’s like someone zapped him with a cattle prod leaving us with nothing but total frantic energy. As over the top as this might have been, I never found myself doubting Robinson He brought it all off as natural and I don’t believe there are many who could have delivered in this part as realistically as he did.

“I’ll drink you up, see?”
  • Movie Diva has a ton of background on Edward G. Robinson and how this film languished in obscurity until recently. She quotes Mick LaSalle discussing it in Dangerous Men:

There’s a scene at the end of this film that I think you won’t soon forget. As La Salle describes Robinson’s courtroom speech, “The thinking is twisted. The passion takes him over the edge. He cracks before your eyes. This is Robinson, the great American actor, in the most intense minutes of his film career. He endows the speech with the shape and size of melodrama, but maintains the precision of a ballet dancer. Remaining true to his core, and so in control, he goes to a deep place, without fear, hesitation or bluffing, using himself unflinchingly. No movie star ever looked like Robinson, and he’s beautiful.”

In Two Seconds, the hardship of the Depression doesn’t bring out the nobility of the characters. It brings out fear, greed, lust, despair, and ultimately madness. […] At first, Preston Foster is slightly hard to take as Bud. He had recently played the role on stage, and he’s still a bit “big” for the movie. I always thought Foster was a lousy actor until I found out that he was also a guitarist and composer; he wrote the Muddy Waters classic “Got My Mojo Working,” which makes him a hero in my book. Essentially he was a proto-beatnik, and maybe too hip to take seriously the cardboard roles that usually came his way. Despite his overemphasis, he’s intensely likeable as Bud. His love for John is the motor of the movie and one of its few grace notes.

  • Bud, early in the film, cracks that a girl “ain’t no Peggy Joyce!”. Joyce was a famous, sexually capricious socialite who also appeared in 1933’s International House.
  • Another reference in the film: one person asks, “Hey! Who’s the smiling lieutenant down there?”, a reference to, of course, The Smiling Lieutenant.
  • One last note: the image on the DVD cover for this one is not from this movie; I spent about 20 minutes Googling and couldn’t figure out what movie it really belongs to, though. If you know, leave a comment!

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