Eddie G.

Thursday, December 12th, 2002 | Film

I spent the entire day yesterday at the Castro theater, watching pre-code films. The films were selected by Mick Lasalle, our local film critic and the author of a book on female stars of the pre-code era, Complicated Women, which I wasn’t that crazy about. He’s an excellent critic–witty and insightful, but his book, although encyclopedic and thorough, didn’t offer an interesting or new perspective on the period or the women, although his passion for Norma Shearer is contagious, and his crush on her is a delight to witness. The showing of these films coincides with the release of his new book, Complicated Men. The first two films were only so so, typical dramas of the period with fast talking reporters, tough guys, and platinum blondes. But, Lord have mercy, the third film featured a performance by Edward G. Robinson that had me sobbing in the 9th row center.

The film was Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 Two Seconds, referring to the two final seconds of brain activity following execution by electrocution. It opens with Robinson being led to the chair. As the switch to the electric chair is turned on, we slowly cut to the events leading to his death. Of course it’s a “tomato,” and of course it’s money. After Robinson’s best friend, a highly paid riveter, like Robinson (“That’s more money per week than a professor!”), falls off a building in an argument with Robinson about his wife being a slut (the camera follows him all the way to the ground!), Robinson becomes slowly and magnificently unhinged. Unable to work due to his nerves, his wife goes back to the dance hall, supposedly, but is actually sleeping around with the dance hall boss. When Robinson catches the two lovers together, he shoots and kills the floozy. I haven’t read about this film in any film noir anthologies, or maybe I have but forgot, a much more likely scenario, but it seems to be an important precursor stylistically and thematically.

Following his sentencing, he pleads with the judge that the state’s killing the wrong man, that although he had always wanted to kill his wife, he had finally paid his debts, that he should have been killed when he was living off of his wife’s indiscretions, when he wasn’t a man, that he was now free from her, free from his dept–he screams, “You should have killed me then, you’re killing the wrong man!!!” I was totally convinced, sobbing right along with him. God, what an actor. In all of his films that I’ve seen, he consistently moved beyond the character acting of the time into a realism that can still shock today.

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