My dad is what communications theorists call an “early adopter“–always on the cutting edge of technology, he purchased video cameras, computers, and VCR’s long before these items were standard in American households. For a brief time before I could fully appreciate it, my family subscribed to HBO from which my dad would record movies for all of us to watch. Growing up, these tapes served as our primary video collection, since purchasing manufactured videos cost triple what it does today. To get the most bang for the buck, there would often be three films on a single tape and movies would be recorded over.
This technological savvy and frugality led directly to one of my more frightening movie viewings, Jagged Edge (1985). I must have been about six years old when I decided to watch an old tape of The Nutcracker ballet. Static cut into the movie about twenty minutes in, and the HBO introduction played. Curious about what would follow, I continued to watch the tape. I remember an establishing shot of a house on a dark hill, before cutting to an interior shot of the house. In a bedroom, a woman slept peacefully when suddenly, a masked man emerged from behind her headboard wrapping ropes around her neck.
I cannot remember anything else after that except my shocked reaction. For years thereafter, I feared that my room might be broken into and that I could be murdered. I also worried about a stranger hiding behind my headboard (which I now realize to be totally absurd since there’s not enough room behind it to hide). One time, my brother Paul hid under my bed and grabbed my ankle as a joke, to which I screamed and cried in response
Last weekend, I re-watched Jagged Edge over the internet, confronting the text head-on. The first scene (the only one I actually watched as a child) differs greatly from the way I remembered it. The killer does not emerge from behind the bed to strangle the woman, but rather ties up the victim with ropes before opening the front of her night gown and holding a knife up to her chest. I must have repressed this detail, because to me as an adult, it was the most frightening part of the scene. The next shots show the crime scene being examined by police officers. Above the bed, the word “bitch” is scrawled in blood, suggesting the killer’s misogynist intentions.
Click this link to view the trailer.
These overtly sexist details struck me most as I re-watched Jagged Edge. The film centers on the investigation of the crime the opens the story, with Jeff Bridges playing Jack Forrester, the husband of the victim and the prime suspect. Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a high-powered San Francisco attorney who reluctantly takes on the case; however, soon enough she becomes convinced of Jack’s innocence, and the two sleep together as they prepare for trial. Information revealed during the trial tests Teddy’s faith in Jack’s innocence, but ultimately she believes him and successfully argues for his acquittal. After celebrating the verdict, Jack and Teddy have sex once again, but Teddy discovers crucial evidence in Jack’s home that links him to the crime. In the final scene, the masked man threatens Teddy with a knife, and she shoots him and before pulling off his mask to reveal Jack’s face.
This film clearly falls into eighties feminist backlash territory in spite of Teddy’s intelligence and success as an attorney. Ultimately, Jack manipulates Teddy into believing he is innocent before attempting to kill her, revealing that in spite of her power, she remains vulnerable as a single woman. What’s more, the film problematically contains several scenes in which Teddy’s two children openly complain about her separation from her husband. These touches seem to signal that Teddy is influenced by feminism to some extent, but they also suggest that she has put her career ahead of the happiness of her children, and, in part, her divorced status puts her at-risk for Jack’s manipulation. What might be most insulting about Jagged Edge is the implication that working women will put aside commonsense standards of professionalism (i.e. DON’T SLEEP WITH YOUR CLIENT…WHO IS ACCUSED OF MURDER) for the sake of romance. In summary, the film seems to be a product of its era in the vein of Fatal Attraction (also a Glenn Close film).
There’s also some interesting white guilt going on in the film. Teddy in part chooses to represent Jack to challenge an old colleague from her time as a DA named Thomas Krasny, who represents the state in the case against Jack. Early in the film, Teddy attends a funeral for a man named Henry Styles that she helped put away with Krasny but who she later found out was innocent. Henry’s mother, who is black, scolds Teddy for showing up at the burial. After the verdict is announced, Teddy proclaims Styles’ innocence to the press, explaining that Krasny suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Henry. While the film deserves credit for presenting an injustice by white people in power against a black man, it seems like the subplot’s primary purpose is to create tension between Teddy and Thomas, and to present Teddy as a principled person. The film does not explore the issue any deeper, nor does it explicitly mention race as a factor in Henry’s discrimination.
Still, I must admit that I enjoyed Jagged Edge in spite of its ideological problems. It captures a particular era stylistically and ideologically with a splendidly convoluted plot, melodramatic performances, and lots of sex and violence. The writer, Joe Eszterhas, also penned Basic Instinct (1992), a similarly problematic but pleasurable film. While Jagged Edge lacks the knowing wink of Basic Instinct, its twist-and-turns plot does offer some moments of suspense, and Close and Bridges perform the material well. It may not have aged well, but that’s part of the fun of watching it: you’re horrified by the ideologies, rather than staging of the murder.