I know this film has its defenders, and the opening scenes are promising, but I have to say that in the end I found Two Seconds unsatisfying, despite some interesting elements along the way. Edward G. Robinson is an actor I almost always admire, even when his material isn't up to par, but in the final scenes here his performance is overwrought and unconvincing. For the finale he throws all restraint out the window and indulges himself in over-the-top histrionics, as if to compensate for a script that didn't rise to the occasion. To be fair, he was miscast in the role of naive, simple-minded construction worker John Allen; Robinson was pushing 40 when this film was made and his childlike pronouncements in the early scenes just don't ring true. If this had been made in the 1940s perhaps Broderick Crawford or even Lon Chaney Jr. might have made this character credible, but Robinson's intelligence shines through too plainly for us to accept him as an oddly virginal blue-collar guy who turns homicidal.
The premise is that what we are seeing represents the thoughts in a condemned man's mind during the last two seconds that his brain still functions, as he dies in the electric chair. That's the hook which provides the title, but it's little more than a gimmick for framing the story: what unfolds in John Allen's mind is a straightforward narrative of the events leading to the capital crime he committed, presented in the familiar style of a '30s crime flick. (And the screenplay violates its own gimmick, for there are sequences in Allen's flashback that occur when he isn't present, explaining things he doesn't know, which are therefore "memories" he couldn't have.) From the beginning the script sets up expectations it fails to meet. In an early scene when John is working high above Manhattan with his friend Bud on the frame of an unfinished office building, he looks down on the people below and delivers a speech comparing them to ants that suggests a seminal version of Harry Lime's famous speech in The Third Man. We're prepared to expect that John will come to fancy himself some kind of Nietzsche-like 'Superman,' and that his crime will derive from a sense of superiority over others, but nothing in his subsequent behavior follows from this speech. Instead, John's actions are motivated by deep-seated feelings about the proper relationship between men and women --and perhaps unspoken feelings for Bud, his friend and longtime roommate. More directly, John's crime is provoked by his rage toward his grasping wife Shirley, who tricked him into marriage by getting him blotto drunk and who indirectly contributes to the accidental death of Bud.
Shirley is well played by Vivienne Osbourne, an actress I'd never seen before, who is vivid in a two-dimensional, underwritten role. Shirley, like John, is another character who is strangely inconsistent from scene to scene, but she eventually settles into the familiar movie staple of no-good trollop, a parasite who marries John for his steady paycheck and showers him with contempt when his health fails and the paychecks are no longer coming in. We're given no credible reason whatever why Shirley stays with him, and when she seeks work as a dancer at her former place of employment it seems like a smart survival tactic, but this is where the story's true thesis kicks in: John is now the parasite because he's living off his wife's earnings.
The script becomes increasingly shrill and hysterical as it reaches these final scenes, and Robinson's performance follows suit. What's interesting is that John's speeches reflect the panic felt by a lot of men of his era over the painful fact that they were no longer the breadwinners in their households. As the Depression deepened and more and more men were jobless, a growing number of women, married or not, had to earn income through secretarial work, factory work, needlework, clerking in shops, or less savory pursuits. It's bluntly implied that Shirly isn't making all her money by dancing, and it's her success in earning "low" money that provokes John's rage. He states repeatedly that a man who lives off his wife's earnings is no better than a rat, and after he's killed her he complains that since he's become a "man" once more it's entirely unfair to punish him for it!
Did the people who made Two Seconds believe this? I seriously doubt it, but does that mean we are to dismiss John as crazy and ignore his rants? It isn't entirely clear, and I wish the screenwriters had worked out their themes (and followed their intriguing premise) more carefully before the cameras rolled. Even so, this is an interesting, unusual movie which stands as a fascinating reflection of the period when it was made. Still, for a truly great performance by Edward G. Robinson I'll take Little Caesar or Double Indemnity any day.