You might argue the only necessary tester of the Joel Eszterhas “Did-they-do-it?” is the immediate response. Once you know, it’s never going to have the same impact again. Obviously, such a reasoning would, in theory, negate rereading Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. There, however, the pleasure is as much from a well-thumbed mystery well told. In contrast, Jagged Edge’s merits and failings are very much those of Eszterhas’ milieu; he provides enough slickness to attract a good cast, but they’re the ones who have to carry it through its more OTT and showy theatrics and plot extravagances.
The screenwriter’s tastes always tended to the excessive, but he was less easy to pin down and lampoon pre- his ’90s sex-thriller spree and the massive paydays they elicited. Jagged Edge was the first of his soon-to-be patented “Is my lover/family member guilty of something horrific?” plots, subsequently seen in ostensibly higher-minded fare like Betrayed and Music Box
And the engine runs quite agreeably for what it is, even given that director Richard Marquand, fresh from doing whatever George Lucas told him on Return of the Jedi, doesn’t have the sense of the absurd that really brings out the “best” in such material. He’s a bit rough around the edges at times in finessing the picture, although the opening murder, intentionally movie-ish in staging, seems to be consciously imitating a Brian De Palma picture.
The fun aspect of this revisit (not my first rewatch by any means, but certainly the first for a couple of decades) comes mostly from the main trio of Close, Bridges and Robert Loggia and the tells or otherwise that come with the benefit of hindsight.
Close, soon to be irreversibly associated with harder-edged parts, takes the opportunity to play sharp but manipulated and emotionally vulnerable; she’s the key to investing a movie otherwise boasting broad strokes and cartoonishness with integrity. Bridges, naturally, has to be inscrutable, which he does well, although the early choice not to be overly convincingly upset when revisiting the murder scene is interesting in retrospect (he plays it like a less skilled actor would, if genuinely innocent). Loggia, the picture’s solo Oscar nomination, is great fun in the classic investigator role, cursing constantly and wholly devoted to Close. And crucially deciding at an early stage “What do I think? What do I really think? He killed her”.
The procession of dubious and devastating witnesses is well and dramatically integrated and par for the course. Less successful is the troubled-conscience subplot, tying in tension between Close and prosecutor Peter Coyote over an old case, particularly when it leads to a public confessional after getting Jeff off. It would have been much more interesting were Coyote honourable and not revealed as a despicably unscrupulous bastard.
And the ending is, of course, ridiculously uncalled for, since Jeff was no way going to murder his defence lawyer just because she told him she knew he did it. It provides fireworks, sure – although, apparently many audience members weren’t entirely sure whose face that was under the mask, so the studio was required to add clarifying footage – but in standard Eszterhas form, that shock value is designed to mask a swathe of dubious motivation.
On the way to securing the eventual leads, Jane Fonda, Kevin Costner, Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas were all considered. One of the producers (Martin Ranshohoff) apparently considered Close to ugly for the role (if you’re looking for justice, his later projects included fizzler would-be sequel Physical Evidence). Lance Henriksen appears in the first couple of scenes, as a cop, but then, alas, disappears (granting him even less of a screen presence than in the same year’s The Terminator).
Jagged Edge was something of a sleeper hit, going in at Number Two (below Commando) but showing staying power and hitting the top spot in its fourth week. It still has a decent rep – a remake with Halle Berry has been touted – but it doesn’t quite have the satisfaction of, say, the lower key Presumed Innocent a few years later. Compared to Basic Instinct, though, it’s positively classy.