As a long-standing sucker for Perry Mason-brand courtroom hijinks, I can recommend Jagged Edge without hesitation to those with similar predilections. Better than half the movie takes place in a courtroom, and these scenes are full of juicy surprise witnesses and unexpected testimony – just the way Perry Mason would have wanted it.
The scenes outside the courtroom don’t always work as well, but Jagged Edge is just devious enough to make a pretty good case for itself.
After a misleadingly sensationalistic opening scene, in which a San Francisco society woman is kinkily murdered with a serrated hunting knife, the film settles down into whodunit territory – specifically, is the woman’s husband (Jeff Bridges) the guilty party? That’s what the district attorney (Peter Coyote, late of Heartbreakers) believes; he’s arrested the guy.
There’s cause enough for suspicion: The dead woman was rumored to be seeking a divorce from Bridges, and he was a nobody who married into her money (and into his job at her family’s newspaper).
Bridges’ defense attorney (Glenn Close), who bears a grudge against the district attorney, is determined to free her client, with the help of a crusty investigator (Robert Loggia, sinking his teeth into the kind of tasty role that has been known to attract Oscar attention). But as Close gets more involved with the case, she is deeply drawn to the charming Bridges, to the point where a romantic conflagration is inevitable.
But she still isn’t quite sure he’s innocent. In this aspect, the film begs comparison to Otto Preminger’s 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder, in which the audience could never be certain about the lead character’s guilt. As with that film (in which Ben Gazzara played the suspect), the suspense relies on the actor’s talent for ambiguity.
Here, when Bridges shows Close the room where he found his wife’s body, he’s got to show sorrow and pain – but he’s also got to leave his performance open enough so that we’re teased about whether his grief is genuine or whipped up for her benefit. Bridges does a splendid job with this, although his ambiguity tend to work against the film’s dynamics; there’s a strange dead space at the center of the film, which Glenn Close, a fine but cool actress, can’t seem to fill.
Director Richard Marquand is on similar ground here as in his Eye of the Needle (and, for that matter, his best-forgotten Until September), in which love appears in difficult and dangerous circumstances. He does a workman like job at telling this tale, but the suggestive atmosphere of Eye of the Needle is beginning to look like a one-shot success.
And he doesn’t do a particularly smooth job of covering up some of the film’s distressingly sizable holes, which suggest that the San Francisco police are the biggest bunch of dunderheads for not finding the evidence that Close and Loggia uncover. Marquand probably feels that most of these plot points aren’t going to bother us until we think about them later – and he’s probably right.
It’s sheer force of persuasion, then, that carries Jagged Edge along, despite its faults. Sticklers may cavil, but – at least for the two hours it took to watch the movie – I was persuaded.
First published in The Herald, October 1985
I neglected to mention that Marquand had another notable directing credit, a little thing called Return of the Jedi. He made one more movie, the Bob Dylan picture Hearts on Fire, and then died in 1987 at age 49. As predicted, Loggia did indeed bag an Oscar nomination for his role here. The film was written by Joe Eszterhas, his third credit in a brawny career. It was a big hit, and spawned lots of courtroom-heavy imitators. Also, I want to note that you could refer to Perry Mason in a 1985 review and assume that your readers would get the reference – and not feel like a graybeard.