Mervyn LeRoy's third collaboration with Edward G. Robinson, following Little Caesar and Five Star Final, may remind movie buffs of Fritz Lang. Robinson, in an early departure from his tough-guy type, plays the sort of weakling who gets victimized by predatory women that the actor played for Lang a decade later in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. He also gets to make a climactic plea for his life similar to Peter Lorre's big scene in Lang's M. You might believe that LeRoy and/or Robinson had seen M, but they'd have to have gone abroad to do so, since the Lang film didn't open in the U.S. until 1933. Not impossible, but not necessary, either; Two Seconds is based on a stage play and the big speech would be a natural on the boards. Still, you will get a similar vibe because Robinson goes awesomely nuts during the tirade, filmed mostly (if not entirely) in a single take to showcase Edward G as a new master thespian.
The title derives from the notion that a man condemned to the electric chair has two seconds of consciousness before the juice does its work, during which he'll relive his whole life, as dying men are wont to do. There's some confusion about point-of-view throughout, however, since we see scenes in which Robinson, playing John Allen, isn't present or is more or less unconscious. We shouldn't see these things if John is reliving his experiences, but the two-second device may be introduced simply to segue into a cinematically objective account of John's misfortunes. John's a riveter working on a skyscraper construction project. He shares an apartment with the aptly named Bud (Preston Foster, recreating the part he created on Broadway). John's the more responsible flatmate, talking Bud out of throwing away his gambling winnings on a sure thing pitched by the neighborhood bookie (Guy Kibbee). Bud's engaged but has a roving eye, while John's a shy, lonely man. They talk themselves out of a double date with two struggling gold-diggers ("Looks like we don't eat tonight!") and John ends up on his own in a dance club, where he falls for Shirley Day (Vivienne Osborne), a sympathetic-seeming dime-a-dance girl. A masher paws Shirley until the picture lapses into Fist-a-Vision as John kayoes the bum. He gets Shirley fired in the process, however, and feels sorry for her. He also begins to believe he's found a soulmate who shares his intellectual and cultural aspirations, and makes a date with her to attend a lecture at the library. Bud warns him that Shirley's just another grasping female, but while John boasts of his resistance to female snares he clearly doesn't share his pal's suspicions.
Robinson has built this character up so effectively that it's a genuine shock, if not a blatant plot contrivance, to find that Shirley has gotten him plastered at a niteclub. John's weakness is that he can't hold his liquor, and Shirley finally drags the incoherent lush to a justice of the peace, whom she bribes with ten bucks to declare them married even though John has no idea what's going on. She drives a hostile Bud out of his apartment and sets up shop as Mrs. Allen, eventually explaining that "there's lots a Mrs. can get away with that a Miss can't." Predictably, the new wife drains John's savings, but hubby remains defensive in the face of Bud's denunciations. Bud pushes him too far when he suggests that Shirley is still earning money on the side the same way she used to while she worked at the dance hall. When John rises to threaten him, Bud backs off the edge of a girder and plunges to his death.
The tragedy shatters John, who quits his job. He feebly protests that he doesn't want to live off his wife but Shirley no longer cares what he thinks. The marriage is an arrangement of convenience now, though to her only as John wastes away. But a deus ex machina appears in the form of Kibbee's bookie, who reports that the money John had scraped together on an exotic wager has paid off to the tune of $388 -- that's thousands by today's standards. This good fortune drives John over the edge. He claims that Bud told him how to bet and frantically calculates how much of the money he actually needs to pay off his debts. He has several kinds of debts to pay off. He wants to pay back with his own money everyone whose bills have been paid with Shirley's dubious earnings. He then wants to pay Shirley back with lead for ruining his life.
Robinson is just about the only reason to watch Two Seconds, though Osborne gives an exceptional performance as more a monster femme fatale than the era's typical hard-boiled but good-natured gold digger. The payoff for the Robinson watcher, of course, is that closing speech, a convincing testament of madness in which John, who has offered no defense during his murder trial, pleads to be spared because he's actually redeemed himself through murder. The time to have killed him, he argues urgently, was when he was nothing but a "rat" living off his wife's vices. John simply can't understand why the state wants to kill him now that he's a man again. It's a great speech, delivered with gusto, and I don't really understand why it isn't recognized as one of Robinson's career highlights. I'll recommend this film to Robinson and Pre-Code fans for the speech alone.
His mightiest role? Probably not, but let Warner Bros. make the case in the original trailer for Two Seconds, courtesy of TCM.com.