Sophisticated evil and Moral triumph: A Journey through O. Henry’s stories and supporting examples from featured films
Sophisticated evil and Moral triumph:
A Journey through O. Henry’s stories and supporting examples from featured films
“Half of this story can be found in the records of the Police Department; the other half belongs behind the business counter of a newspaper office.”1
O. Henry is well known, if not famous, for his surprising endings, endings that undermine the gist of the story. Therefore, even when the narrator chooses to divulge the end of the story towards the beginning of the plot, it does not take away from the element of surprise.
The Clarion Call is engaged in a meeting between a cop and a criminal, who are known to each other.
The narrator does not conceal the criminal’s identity or his deeds – they are mentioned in the opening sentences: Johnny Kernan murdered the millionaire Norcross while robbing him.
Barney Woods, a police detective, had figured it out two weeks previously, when he found the charm that he had given to Johnny during their last Christmas together, in the deceased’s flat.
Everything was solved. Where does this leave the surprising ending?
The criminal gains his initial success due to shrewdness and his amoral outlook. The opponent, who represents the law, is often one step behind, struggling to bring justice to the fore. It is a battle of minds, an intriguing confrontation. However, due to the fact that people are involved, the solution can only include the human factor.
Barney Woods knows that Johnny Kernan should “go to the chair for Norcross”2 but he cannot hand him over. His hands are tied, not due to a legal impediment, but due to loyalty.
Very much like the story After Twenty Years, which indicates a similar conflict between representative of law and the offender: the same tension between doing what is right or honoring past friendship. The Clarion Call also reveals to the reader that there are stronger values than dry obligations.
“And now I’ll tell you why I’m talking. Because it’s safe. I’m talking to a man I know. You owe me a thousand dollars, Barney Woods, and even if you wanted to arrest me your hand wouldn’t make the move.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” said Woods. “You counted out twenty fifties without a word. I’ll pay it back some day. That thousand saved me and — well, they were piling my furniture out on the sidewalk when I got back to the house.”
“And so,” continued Kernan, “you being Barney Woods, born as true as steel, and bound to play a white man’s game, can’t lift a finger to arrest the man you’re indebted to. Oh, I have to study men as well as Yale locks and window fastenings in my business.
“You’ve called the tune,” said Woods, as he rolled the little gold pencil about with a thoughtful forefinger. I’ve got to pass you up. I can’t lay a hand on you. If I’d a-paid that money back – but I didn’t, and that settles it. It’s a bad break I’m making, Johnny, but I can’t dodge it. You helped me once, and it calls for the same.”3
The greatness of After Twenty Years and of The Clarion Call is the way in which they both succeed in emphasizing the essence of loyalty versus virtue. The criminals themselves exploit legal definitions to acquit themselves from getting punished for their crimes. The legal representatives are required to use the same degree of cunning in order to allow virtue of human morality to supercede.
Steven Soderbergh’s movie Side effects4 is divided into two parts. The first part appears to be formulating propaganda against the lightheaded use of anti depressants. The second part undermines this assumption, using it as a means to deceive the viewers and to hide the fact that there are people who will stop at nothing in order to get their own way.
The character Emily Taylor loses her perfect world in a flash: her husband was engaged in inside trading, was convicted, and sentenced to four years in prison. His offense deprived him of his freedom. It also robs Emily of the “Good Life”.
Soderbergh’s meticulous attention is evident in the script: it seems as though it does not have a superfluous word. When Emily talks about her hardship, she does not choose to discuss her humiliation, her loneliness or even the difficulty facing the gaze of her former friends and acquaintances. Instead, she only concentrates on the downward slide of moving from their luxurious apartment to a less spacious flat and of her new financial limitations (relatively speaking, of course).
Her former life mattered above all. When this was taken away from her, she decides to act and remove her husband from her path: an act of revenge and pure economic calculation. She wishes to gain from her husband’s death that of which he had deprived her in life.
However, her decision, as are the decisions of everyone else involved, knowingly or unknowingly, bear consequences. Not only from of the legal aspect which Emily tries to skirt with her conniving, but also from the moral aspect. One cannot reconcile with such criminality.
Side effects generates a mental challenge:
In neither half of the film does a character consider the “other person”: nobody talks, nobody listens and nobody cares. There are only “easy” solutions – pills or murder. Everything is cold, clean and decisive.
Yet, conscience refuses to accept such a scenario. The psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks is manipulated by Emily to prescribe her unnecessary pills (which she does not take). The murder she commits, allegedly under the influence of these drugs, costs him both his professional and personal life. When he discovers the truth, he begins to fight back, and as he does so, he brings the movie to its catharsis: Justice.
The legal idea in Side effects is based on the Double Jeopardy clause in the Fifth Amendment of the USA constitution, according to which no court can judge a person for a crime for which he has already been convicted. This idea is no stranger to the movie world. The movie Double Jeopardy5 and the movie Fracture6 use it as a structure for their protagonist’s acts. Whilst “Double Jeopardy” focuses on emotional struggle under cover of the law, Fracture exploits the law in order to avoid a clearly criminal deed.
The movie, very much like The Clarion Call, supposedly begins from its end, as it shows the character, Theodore Crawford, shoot – in order to kill – his disloyal wife. The fact that the same Theodore Crawford manages, eventually, to get acquitted is not an indication of his false innocence, but verification of his successful exploitation of legal loopholes and the confusion of the young attorney, William Beachum.
William is on his way up. His thoughts are not devoted to the supposedly simple case but to his upcoming promotion. However, the moment he realizes he had been deceived and understands the consequences of such a fraud, he comes to his senses and chooses to retaliate. William learns to internalize not only the limitations of the law but also his opponent’s weakness, very much like Mickey Haller in “The Lincoln Lawyer”7 who had to face his own weakness within the same cunning.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, similar to Side effects, there is manipulation and psychological blackmail, which bring about ambivalent feelings as to the job description and the perception of the “I”: Mickey Haller is a criminal defense attorney who works to win. He is not interested in his clients – only in the cash they are willing to offer for their acquittal. Their punishment, their lives, their faults – are all trifles in his hedonistic way.
Louis Roulet is a wealthy rich kid who occupied his time with violence and selfishness. He does not believe in morals. People, as far as he is concerned, are nothing but pawns for the fulfillment of his needs.
Mickey Haller and Louis Roulet are seemingly similar types, although they stand on opposite sides of the law. The confrontation between them has interesting complexity.
Louis Roulet is an undeveloped character: as the movie unfolds, it uncovers more and more of his corrupt personality.
Mickey Haller on the other hand, is forced to reevaluate his life: His former wife (a prosecutor) cannot reconcile with the fact that she was sending guilty people to jail, while her husband was obtaining their release. Louis Roulet compelled Mickey Haller to understand the court’s status and, more importantly, his own status within that system. For the first time in his life Mickey Haller fully comprehended the weight of his responsibility in releasing criminals, who were a clear and present danger to society.
The above discussion is no longer a question of success or failure. It is self evident that such delinquents as Emily Taylor, Theodore Crawford and Louis Roulet have no place in a sane and normal society.
These are characters that committed their crimes cold bloodedly. Their clear thinking is far more dangerous than any momentary impulse, precisely because it is so considered.
Stopping them is not only a challenge. It is social responsibility.
Interestingly enough, the movie Primal Fear8 which embodies all of the above movies – Side effects, Fracture and The Lincoln Lawyer – is also the only movie which does not end with crowning justice.
Martin Vail, a defense attorney, relishes on publicity, fame and honor, of which he simply cannot get enough. He is portrayed as an extreme version Mickey Haller, using his profession as a means to demonstrate his prestige and his legal cases only to obtain financial and personal profit.
Unlike Emily Taylor, Martin Vail’s defense line is not breached until the end of the movie. Martin genuinely believes that Aaron Stampler, the altar boy who is indicted for the brutal murder of the Archbishop Rushman, is completely innocent. In a way, Martin even allows himself to develop warm, caring feeling towards the young man. When he successfully acquits him on the grounds of insanity, due to Aaron alleged multiple personality disorder, Martin even allows himself to be happy – for a moment until the ugly truth shows its face.
Unlike Dr. Jonathan Banks and attorney Mickey Haller, Martin Vail has no possibility to handle the mistake he had made. It is too late. The others realize their errors, deal with them, are sorry and decide to fight back. Martin Vail is possessed by his vanity.
“Kernan, well dressed slightly swaggering, self-confident, seated himself opposite the little detective, with his pale, sandy mustache, squinting eyes and ready-made cheviot suit […]. And then, as Kernan’s ready finger kept the button and the waiter working, his weak point — a tremendous vanity and arrogant egotism, began to show itself. He recounted story after story of his successful plunderings, ingenious plots and infamous transgressions until Woods, with all his familiarity with evildoers, felt growing within him a cold abhorrence toward the utterly vicious man who had once been his benefactor […]. Three feet from their table was the telephone booth. Kernan went inside and sat at the instrument […]. “That the Morning Mars? … I want to speak to the managing editor… Why, tell him it’s someone who wants to talk to him about the Norcross murder […]. I killed the old man at 2:30 A. M. two weeks ago tomorrow…”9.
Vanity is an obstacle. It leads to smugness and carelessness – two factors which can ruin even the most perfect plan.
Johnny Kernan considered himself to be immune from any lawful implications, protected by the power given to him by his friend’s loyal commitment.
Theodore Crawford considered himself to be immune from any lawful implications, protected by the power given to him by his shrewdness.
Emily Taylor considered herself to be immune from any lawful implications, protected by an acquittal on the grounds of temporary insanity, provided by her convincing performance.
Martin Vail considered himself to be immune from any craftiness of his clients, protected by his triumphant achievements and his reputation.
The war between the adversaries, the criminal versus his opponent, who represent law and order, is based on a double-edged system. The villains in this article always win the first battle: they surprise their opponents as they catch them unprepared, get their wish and even get away without punishment. The battle maybe won but the war is lost: the weak and naive opponent finds a sophisticated way to rise above the cleverness of his antagonist. More importantly – he is now able to restore peace and order to their rightful place.
Johnny Kernan, Theodore Crawford, Emily Taylor and Martin Vail – do not rightly estimate the strength of their adversaries.
Barney Woods, the police detective, the attorney Mickey Haller and the psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks find the way to overcome the sophisticated evil that defeated the legal system and nearly destroyed their lives.
The way in which they do it is just as ingenious as the cunningness of the criminals, maybe even more so.
However, beyond the craftiness, there is also righteousness.
It is the triumph of morality.