San Francisco heiress Page Forrester is brutally murdered in her remote beach house. Her husband Jack is devastated by the crime but soon finds himself accused of her murder. He hires lawyer Teddy Barnes to defend him, despite the fact she hasn't handled a criminal case for many years. There's a certain chemistry between them and Teddy soon finds herself defending the man she loves.
If, as seems to be the general consensus, Joe Eszterhas has only ever had one decent script in him then Jagged Edge is it. Or, to be a little more charitable to the old yeti (although after Showgirls he hardly deserves it), this slick, slithery little thriller is at least the blueprint for his subsequent forays into the realm of high-style crime drama with a twist — of which 1992's Basic Instinct stands as the most obvious, and most obviously derivative, example.
All the Eszterhas trademarks are out in force — murder, money, obsession, sex and dangerous romance — but in this case, seven years before Sharon Stone proved she was a natural blonde, the lurching plot can still tighten a sphincter or two and the red herrings are served on ice.
Glenn Close, excellent in a break-out role, plays disenchanted lawyer Teddy Barnes who is persuaded to renounce her vow never to practise criminal law again when newspaper editor Jack Forrester (Bridges) is accused of murdering his wife (from whom he has inherited the family publishing business) and finds himself in need of a hot-shot defence team.
Several things serve to sway Teddy's decision. First of all, the case presents an opportunity to exact high-profile revenge on her ex-boss, reptilian District Attorney Thomas Krasny (Coyote), who poisoned her faith in the justice system four years earlier by withholding evidence in the trial of an innocent black youth, Henry Stiles, who later committed suicide in prison. Krasny, campaigning for political office, is out to nail Forrester from the off. The chance to ease an aching conscience over her unwitting involvement in Stiles' death is also a powerful draw. Plus she is irresistibly attracted to Forrester. The trouble is, Teddy is never able to fully decide whether Forrester is innocent or guilty — and neither are we. And this is why the film works so well.
Like most Eszterhas scripts, if you put Jagged Edge under too powerful a critical lens the cracks begin to show. Here, a couple of the plot twists are short on subtlety and the all-important diversionary scapegoat — a stud-muffin tennis pro — slots in rather too neatly. But because the characters are so well drawn — and well played — it never appears as anything less than a ruthlessly efficient nerve-shredder that binds you in an ecstasy of suspense until the very last frame. We don't notice we're siding irrationally with Teddy throughout the nail-biting courtroom scenes and the simmering show-downs with Krasny, because not only is Coyote such a convincingly arrogant shitheel ("He had a charge sheet as long as my dick," he sneers at Close when she confronts him over Stiles) but Bridges is the perfect counterweight — tortured, enigmatic, charming. And always, always plausible. The fulcrum, though, is Close, who manages to convince us that she is far too intelligent and savvy to ever embark on a major case simply to crush her former mentor, or to fall for a manipulative, cold-blooded killer just because he rides horses and has great hair.
Even so, she is plagued by doubt no matter how deep her relationship with Forrester runs, and this leads to some of the most effective moments in the film. The scene where she tentatively taps out a message on the ancient typewriter which — literally — holds the key to Forrester's guilt or innocence is a moment of brilliantly sustained agony.
Although it sports the trappings of a modern adult thriller — sex, violence, cuss words et al — Jagged Edge (the title, incidentally, refers to the murder weapon: a jag-bladed hunting knife) has a curious, and curiously effective, old-fashioned feel. The clearest indication that the film bowls along with its head in the 80s but its heart in the 40s is Robert Loggia as private investigator Sam Ransom. Sporting trench coat and snap-brim hat, Loggia growls foul-mouthed street smarts out of the corner of his mouth and maintains a healthy cynicism over Teddy's involvement with Forrester. Yet the affection between the two is one of the most memorable aspects of the film. "Did your mother ever wash your mouth out with soap and water?" she asks, a prim eyebrow raised at a particularly colourful outburst.
"Yeah," he drawls. "But it didn't do any fuckin' good." Loggia received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Jagged Edge also alerted audiences to Bridges. Having languished for decades near the top of the Tinseltown second division he finally proved that he not only possessed leading man charisma but that he was also an enormously talented actor. No further evidence is required than the sequence where, at Close's bidding, he returns to the beach house where his wife was killed to retrace the steps he took on the night he discovered the body. His sobbing, hysterical breakdown when he reaches her bedroom is utterly, chillingly convincing. Later we realise just how chilling this episode is — is he really a distraught husband reliving a nightmare, or a calculating killer revisiting the scene of his own grisly crime? At this point, Teddy thinks she knows. And so do we.
Joe Eszterhas conceives a winning formula, and this is perhaps his best film.