Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Elliot Lester (play) Harvey F. Flaw (adaptation)
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Vivienne Osborne, Preston Foster, J. Carrol Naish, Guy Kibbee.
Edward G. Robinson made his reputation playing a gangster and often was typecast in the role.* But he was a multifaceted actor** who could play more than just that. In Two Seconds, he’s a man who loses control of his life and suffers the consequences.
The movie starts with an intriguing premise: a man who is going to witness the electrocution of John Allen (Edward G. Robinson) asks how long it takes for a condemned man to die. “Two seconds,” someone replies, then someone adds, “That’ll be the longest two seconds of his life.”
We flash back to John working on a skyscraper with his friend Bud (Preston Foster). After work, Bud takes John on a blind date, but he bails as soon as he sees her and goes to a dance hall, where he meets – and become smitten by – Shirley Day (Vivienne Osborne). They agree to date, despite Bud’s warnings, and Shirley gets John drunk and marries him. A few weeks later, John and Bud get into an argument about her – John still thinks she’s bad news – and John loses his temper and attacks Bud, who falls to his death
The death brings on a deep depression, so John is unable to work. Shirley goes back to her dime-a-dance life and John slides further into alcoholism and tries to make a big score gambling.
Given the opening scene, it’s clear where it all ends up.
Robinson accurately portrays a descent into mental deterioration, while Osborne – who had been a success on Broadway – is excellent as Shirley, cold and hard as glass. She is in many ways the precursor to the film noir femme fatale of the 40s. Preston Foster is also good as Bud, as he played the role on Broadway.
Notable in the cast is Guy Kibbee as John’s bookie. Kibbee is best known as a befuddled comic character in Busby Berkeley movies. Oddly, his nice persona works well in this context: the bookie is charming and understanding to his customers.
The movie is a fascinating early version of a film noir – possibly the first -- and is unrelenting as we watch John’s life spin away from him.
*When asked what the “G.” stood for, he would say “gangster.”
**For his time. Everyone under the studio system was typecast in one was or another.