Is Two Seconds (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) the first American noir? I’ve read some historians who trace American film noir as far back as Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927). But Underworld, with its light-hearted gangster protagonist, is a veritable romp compared to the unrelenting descent into darkness that is Two Seconds.
Two Seconds is a showcase for its immensely talented star, Edward G. Robinson, whom director LeRoy had made famous the previous year as Little Caesar (1931). The film’s title refers to the two seconds during which a man’s life purportedly “flashes before his eyes” in the instant before his death.
We view the movie’s opening scene through the eyes of a young reporter who has come to witness his first criminal execution. Robinson plays John Allen, the man in the electric chair. The executioner throws the switch, and the rest of the film, the “two seconds” of the title, shows all the events that led Robinson to his fate.
And “fate” is definitely the operative word, fatalism being one of noir’s defining characteristics. In Two Seconds, Robinson plays an ordinary decent guy, a construction worker, to whom Fate deals one bad card after another. Consistent with the film’s fatalism, we know from scene one – no spoilers here – that Robinson is predestined to expire in the chair.
Two more characteristics of noir are the corrupting nature of the Big City, and the femme fatale. You can have a noir without either a dark city or a femme fatale, but their presence in combination almost certainly guarantees that you are watching (or reading) one. The Big City is where Robinson’s character works as a construction worker with his best buddy and roommate, Bud, played by Preston Foster. Things aren’t so bad at first. Robinson enjoys his job, looking down at the people “crawling like flies” below, and the pay is good. ($62.50 a week!) But then Fate carries Robinson into a Dance Hall where he meets his femme fatale, Shirley (Vivienne Osborne), a taxi-dancer-cum-prostitute who, recognizing a well-paid sucker when she sees one, gets him drunk enough on bootleg liquor to be manipulated into marrying her.
Things go from sordid to worse. Scuffling with his best pal, who calls Robinson’s new bride a “tramp,” Robinson inadvertently pushes him off the top of a construction site where he falls horribly to his doom (a remarkable Vertigo-like process shot from Robinson’s point of view, showing Foster’s body growing smaller and smaller as the street background spins wildly underneath him). Robinson turns into a shaking alcoholic wreck. He can no longer work, because he now has a psychosomatic fear of heights. He loathes being supported by his prostitute wife, who laughs at him, but who stays married to Robinson because it provides her with a respectable veneer. Discovering Shirley together with her oily pimp (J. Carrol Naish), Robinson murders her.
“Film noir,” I once wrote, “arose from the collision of German expressionism with documentary realism, paralleling the emergence of the city as a character. Thus, the first true film noir is probably Fritz Lang’s M (1931).” Sordid Depression-era realism is Two Seconds’ predominant mode (see also, LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, released the same year), but the film has its share of expressionistic touches. There is the stark, angular, execution chamber, designed by Warner Brothers art director, Anton Grot, which foreshadows his work on two Michael Curtiz horror films, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X. There is the shot of Shirley in a white slip towering triumphantly over her drunken husband in bed, both of them shot throughs the bars of the bedframe. Finally, there is Robinson’s courtroom monologue, a scene that appears to deliberately emulate Peter Lorre’s climactic monologue in M. Abandoning realism altogether, the courtroom goes dark except for a single spotlight focused on Robinson as he explains, “You’re killing me at the WRONG TIME. If you’d killed me when I was a RAT, I’d a thanked you for it. But now that I’ve squared everything off, you want to kill me. It ain’t fair! IT AIN’T FAIR TO LET A RAT LIVE AND KILL A MAN!” Spiraling even further into insanity, he grasps his head in pain and seems to see his dead friend standing in front of him, “BUD, WAIT FOR ME!” It’s completely over-the-top, like Emil Jannings’ expressionistic contortions at the conclusions of The Blue Angel or The Last Command, however, thanks to Robinson’s skill and conviction, it’s moving and it works.
But there’s more. We cut to the electric chair’s thrown switch. Two seconds have passed. We dolly in to the aghast face of the young reporter who has seen his first execution, so close that we can see the sickly beads of sweat forming on his brow.
The preceding is Bright Lights After Dark’s contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. You are also invited to donate to this worthwhile project using the link below.