Film Score: John Barry Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, Peter Coyote and Robert Loggia
Jagged Edge is a very neat courtroom thriller. Interestingly, there are some parallels between this film and The File on Thelma Jordon from 1950 in terms of the main character’s relationship with one of the lawyers in the courtroom and how the identity of the real murderer is kept from the audience until the very end. The screenplay was written by Joe Eszterhas, who would go on to pen other thrillers like Basic Instinct and the adaptation of Ira Levin’s Sliver. Director Richard Marquand, on the other hand, would make only one more film before his unexpected death two years later. He certainly had a deft hand as a director, and managed to raise this film above much of what was coming out at the time. His shot selections are well done, as is the lighting that he gets from cinematographer Matthew Leonetti, and he is able to build suspense in a very natural way. He is also assisted in this by composer John Barry. Although he gives in to the use of synthesizers in the film score--and they are used heavily at times--Barry’s use of them is done within the framework of a traditional orchestra, and so it works in a way that is not overbearing. During the very tense scenes it is reminiscent of something like Ennio Morricone’s work on The Thing.
The film begins with the brutal murder of Maria Mayenzet. While assistant district attorney Peter Coyote is pulling into the scene of the crime, the radio announces that Mayenzet’s husband, Jeff Bridges, is being taken to the hospital. After examining the house, Coyote and the police detective Lance Henriksen go to the hospital to question Bridges, but they already suspect him because he inherits everything. His wife was a rich heiress, worth millions, who owned the newspaper Bridges was running. After the funeral the head of his firm, James Karen, suggest hiring an expert criminal lawyer but Bridges objects on the grounds that it will make him look even more guilty. The only one on their staff who has had any criminal experience, however, is Glenn Close, who just happened to be a former assistant district attorney under Coyote and there’s bad blood between them. Initially she refuses, but when she meets with Bridges she’s convinced that he didn’t do it, and reluctantly agrees to represent him. First she goes to her former investigator at the D.A.’s office, Robert Loggia, and though he is far from convinced of Bridges’ innocence, he agrees to do it for her. During the four months leading up to the trial, however, Close begins to fall for Bridges. Everything she has learned during the investigation has convinced her that he is innocent and so she allows herself to be seduced by him.
The trial section of the film is absolutely terrific, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that Scott Turrow was inspired at least somewhat by it when he wrote Presumed Innocent. The way in which Close, in the defense of a seemingly hopeless cause, is able to destroy the prosecution’s case point by point is wonderful to watch. John Dehner is the crusty old judge who begins by giving Coyote a lot of latitude but is just as convinced as the jury when things begin going the other way. Helping Coyote with the prosecution as the eager young assistant is William Allen Young, who really should have had more opportunity in Hollywood than he was given, working almost exclusively in TV after this film. Jeff Bridges is good to a point, but when he gives Close a tour of the house where the murders took place and breaks down--the thing that convinces her he’s telling the truth about his innocence--I probably would have turned down the case at that point. But perhaps that’s part of the suspense. Close, similarly, has certain mannerisms that haunt her work. Even a small scene like the one in her kitchen when she’s drinking coffee and reading the paper seems exactly like the one in The Big Chill when she takes a cigarette from Mary Kay Place. This is probably the main reason the film has diminished somewhat in its critical assessment. The film was a hit when it was first released but has declined steadily in reputation over the years. There are some bright spots, though.
Peter Coyote, one of my favorite actors, and someone who has taken an incredibly odd career path, couldn’t have been better for the part. When he sits in his office saying, “What is that? That’s the oldest trick in the book, killing your wife for the money,” it really gives the film a true adversary, unlike the bumbling idiots in Presumed Innocent. But the best performance by far comes from Robert Loggia, one of the unsung character actors of the screen. He’s forceful and magnetic and commands the scene whenever he appears. The Academy evidently thought the same thing because he received the only Oscar nomination for the film. One of the unique things about the story is how it actually shows a genuinely amicable divorce. Clearly Guy Boyd wants to get back together with Close, but even though she doesn’t she’s not petty or mean or dismissive of him, and their relationship onscreen is incredibly refreshing. The final factor that the film has going for it is even though the film was shot smack dab in the middle of the eighties, it feels surprisingly timeless. Much of the credit for that must go to costume designer Ann Roth, who made some classic and conservative choices with the wardrobe. Jagged Edge may not be the best thriller made in the eighties, but despite some flaws it still remains a gripping and entertaining suspense film.