Jagged Edge: one of the 80s’ best studio thrillers

From the director of Return Of The Jedi, Jagged Edge is one of the best mainstream thrillers of the 1980s. We take a look back.

This article contains spoilers for Jagged Edge.

Long before Basic Instinct cemented his legend and ignited the erotic thriller cycle of the 90s, Joe Eszterhas produced the blueprint for its eventual success. 1985’s Jagged Edge, a courtroom thriller starring Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges, is a classy little number which lays out all the beats that Eszterhas would run into the ground by the mid-90s: The bloody murder which initiates the action; the charming suspect who may or may not be guilty of the crime; the investigator who falls under their spell. All components are present and correct, the only difference being that here they are fresh and feel like natural and integrated parts of the story.

While some may argue the merits of his other work, there is good case to be made that Jagged Edge is Joe Eszterhas’s best film. Basic Instinct made more money; Showgirls has the notoriety and Flashdance has more leg warmers, but if you want to watch an Eszterhas movie without qualifications, then Jagged Edge is the movie for you (BTW, if you want to check this movie out sans spoilers, stop reading now).

We start on a dark and stormy night. In a very chic beachfront house, a masked intruder breaks in and brutally slaughters wealthy heiress Claire Forrester and her maid. The weapon used is believed to be a hunting knife with a ‘jagged edge’. The prime suspect is her husband Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges), who runs her family’s newspaper empire. Jack was found knocked out in the house along with the bodies, although the medical examiner is quick to point out that his wound is such that it could have been self-inflicted.

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Things do not look good for Forrester, especially when predatory DA Thomas Krasny (Peter Coyote) starts to circle the case. From the moment he is introduced, it is clear that Krasny is not someone you want to cross. A man with dubious methods and aspirations for higher office, Krasny has a personal grudge with Forrester. Owing to his tactics and reputation, Krasny has been the longtime target of attack in the editorials of Forrester’s newspapers. For Krasny, this is too good an opportunity to pass up — a sensational, high profile murder to close his legal career, and the public skewering of a major obstacle to his senatorial campaign. All he needs is evidence.

It is not long before Krasny’s investigators find something potentially incriminating. In an interview with the cleaner at the tennis club Forrester frequents, the cleaner recalls finding a hunting knife in Forrester’s locker before the murders took place. Krasny thinks he has his man. Forrester is in dire need of a strong legal defence, and his company lawyers believe they have a suitable candidate to represent him against the relentless DA.

This lawyer is Teddy Barnes (Glenn Close), a former assistant prosecutor who previously worked with Krasny and feels tarnished by a previous case in which an innocent man, Henry Styles, was wrongly convicted and later committed suicide. Now working in non-criminal cases in Forrester’s law firm, Forrester wants her as his defence attorney because a) he does not want to be surrounded by a group of high priced lawyers, b) she is a woman and c) she knows how Krasny works.

Initially, Teddy refuses to take part in the case. But at its heart, Jagged Edge is an old-fashion noir, and Teddy the burnt out fall guy with a stain on her soul. After learning of the suicide of the man she and Krasny had wrongly prosecuted, Teddy joins Forrester’s defence. Guilty or innocent, he is going to be the vehicle for her eventual redemption…

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Directed with class and precision by the late Richard Marquand, Jagged Edge manages to dial back on Ezterhas’s excesses while maintaining the suspense and the romance to achieve the kind of adult thriller that would become de rigeur in the following decade.

Close and Bridges are terrific in the leads. Bridges is all warm smiles and charm – it’s the Jeff Bridgiest role he’s ever had, which makes it difficult to figure out whether Forrester really is the killer or a grieving husband wrongly accused. As Teddy Barnes, Close is smart, witty and extremely sympathetic. Too old and sophisticated to convince as the traditional romantic lead, Close’s casting is just as pivotal as Bridges as the chief suspect. This is not Teddy’s first case, and not her first love affair, and Close lends her role a toughness and intelligence which makes her burgeoning relationship with Bridges all the more involving. The fact that she is a single mother adds another level of vulnerability to Teddy that separates her from the loners that Ezterhas usually uses as his protagonists.

The supporting cast add a real depth to proceedings – Peter Coyote injects Krasny with a loathsome self-confidence, but adds just a dash of vulnerability that somehow makes him even more odious. He might be on the side of the angels, but Krasny is almost as bad as the people he puts away.

The real diamond in the cast is the now sadly departed Robert Loggia as veteran gumshoe Sam Ransom. His interplay with Close as they work on tracking down leads is a joy, like R-rated excerpts out of a Howard Hawks comedy. Sam may act like an uncaring, hard-drinking SOB, but underneath the crabby surface lies a deeply empathetic man (why else would he be working as a low-paid investigator for the district attorney?). Loggia received an Oscar nomination for this role, one of the few major honours for this veteran talent.

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Finally a word about the director. Richard Marquand died absurdly young a few years after Jagged Edge’s release, depriving him the chance to really show off his talents. Nowadays, his name is associated with Return Of The Jedi, although his contribution to the Star Wars franchise is not as nearly lauded as Irvin Kershner’s work on The Empire Strikes Back. His work on Jagged Edge is excellent. Unshowy and story-focused, he makes sure to balance the courtroom and romantic sub plots effectively so that both flow seamlessly into one another.

However, it is the third act where Marquand really gets to show off. Displaying the same deft touch with suspense that he showed in 1981’s Eye Of The Needle (the film that nabbed him the Return gig), his playing of the final reveal is pitch perfect.

In the end, Teddy is able to discredit Krasny and free Forrester. A series of anonymous notes (written on a faulty typewriter which raises every T) put her and Sam onto the trail of Julie Jensen, a woman from Santa Cruz who suffered a similar assault to the Forrester murder in her beachfront home. This took place a year before the murders, and also involved a masked man with a knife with a jagged edge. Krasny had decided the cases were unrelated and had not brought it up.

After winning the case, Teddy does the right thing and confesses her culpability in the Henry Styles case. Though this will destroy her legal career, she clears her conscience and leaves to enjoy a romantic respite with Forrester. Krasny is destroyed, justice is served, everyone lives happily ever…

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Nah, just kidding. After a night of passion, Teddy goes into Forrester’s closet and finds a typewriter. As the tension mounts, she takes it down and types a single sentence:

HE IS GUILTY.

The T is raised. Forrester was the one sending the anonymous notes. Forrester was the killer after all.

From here until the ending, Marquand plays the suspense like an old hand. When Teddy tries to leave Forrester’s estate, she finds her engine won’t start. Who should come along to help her but Forrester. As he gets into the driver’s seat, Marquand stays on a tight close-up of his face – as viewers, we know that the typewriter is on the seat beside him, barely covered by Teddy’s trenchcoat. Marquand does not do the obvious thing and intercut Forrester with shots of the hidden typewriter. He respects the viewer enough to keep the focus on Forrester’s face as he tries to get the car going. Will he look over? Will he see what’s in the coat?

Teddy manages to get away from Forrester with a story about one of her kids being sick. However, Forrester is not so trusting, and the film concludes with him breaking into her house to kill her. Beginning with a shock cut to a close up of Forrester’s gloved fist breaking a panel of glass (a rare jump scare that still works every time), Marquand gets away with a fairly traditional climax by playing each well-worn key perfectly.

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Overall, Jagged Edge is a fine example of a studio genre picture. While this is partially due to the best script Joe Ezterhas ever wrote, the material is significantly elevated by the other people involved and their interpretation of the material. In contrast to the style of his frequent collaborator Paul Verhoeven, Richard Marquand’s direction significantly underplays the violence and sex which are generally more pronounced in Ezterhas’s other work, while the excellent cast (even the minor players are terrific) realise their characters in ways which make them feel like actual human beings. Unjustifiably overshadowed by its writer’s later works, Jagged Edge is a terrific mainstream thriller that is well worth a look.