Jagged Edge is something of a test case for the erotic thriller, marking Joe Eszterhas’ first foray into the genre, along with Glenn Close’s first top-billed role, two years before she starred in Fatal Attraction, the flagship of the genre. It’s a terrific potboiler, revolving around a laywer, Teddy Barnes, played by Close, who takes on a client, Jack Forrester, played by Jeff Bridges, who stands accused of brutally murdering his wife, Paige, to gain access to her assets. Teddy is sceptical about Jack as a client, but quickly comes to believe in his innocence, and enters a sexual relationship with him, before a series of revelations lead her to question their connection. By the middle of the film, she’s become somewhat of a hostile defender, although no perspective stays stable for long, as the case uncovers new information with each turn.
As that might suggest, Jagged Edge marks Eszterhas’ (and director Richard Marquand’s) attempt to wrest a new kind of erotic thriller out of two pre-established genres: the slasher film and the courtroom drama. The film starts in the vein of classic slashers, adopting the POV of a masked intruder as he makes his way into the Forresters’ California mansion, and ascends the stairs to Paige’s bedroom. The scene could be straight out of a Friday the 13th instalment, right down to the baroque synth stabs and shaky-cam, which trembles to mirror the slasher’s constricted breathing. Yet a critical element of the slasher genre is entirely absent here: the mobility of the victim. While slashers nearly always pin down their victims in the end, the suspense comes from the chase, whether it’s a full-on flight, or whether the victim is simply moving around, oblivious to the slasher’s gaze even as they galvanise it (and the audience).
In this case, however, all that movement is restricted to the killer, who becomes preternaturally phallic in the process. Paige, his victim, is asleep in bed, and powerless to resist him when he luridly stabs his knife into the wall, ties her up, and then proceeds to mutilate her body. This marks the start of a new conflation of bedroom and crime scene in the erotic thriller, and especially in the films penned by Eszterhas, like Basic Instinct and Jade, which start by combining murder and sex in similarly graphic and exotic ways. Rather than simply documenting a killing, they use murder to evoke a more obscure sexual imperative, leading the police in this case to note “no sign of sperm, no sign of any specific sexual pattern.”
If the erotic thriller emerges from the slasher genre in these early scenes, then the main part of the film calibrates it against the stylised courtroom dramas of the early 80s. By the time the erotic thriller was at its peak, we would return to legal procedure in Body of Evidence, a self-conscious trial of the erotic thriller genre itself. In this case, however, the legal dimension serves as both a discursive limit to what can be known or deduced about sexuality, and an incitement to further sexual discourse that the erotic thriller would embrace with abandon. At this early stage, however, we don’t go all the way down that road, as Marquand and Eszterhas instead focus on the primary fear of the erotic thriller, which was also the fear of both neo-noir and classical noir: total female sexual autonomy. More than femininity, noir feared the effeminacy that might ensue if women started behaving like men in the bedroom, and that terror plays out at the level of Close and Bridge’s very different star personae here.
In the early scenes, both Teddy and Jack conform fairly closely to gender norms. When we meet Teddy, she’s bathed in soft light, wearing feminine clothing, and identified as a mother, all of which feels a bit incongruous to those of us familiar with Close’s subsequent steely star image. As her name suggests, Teddy is a conventionally comforting figure, and yet this quickly changes, as the film leans into the other connotation of Teddy – a man’s name. As the trial proceeds, and Teddy comes to doubt Jack, her expressions become more abrasive and angular, while she transitions from dresses to pants suits, as if trying to hold her femininity in abeyance, anxious about what Jack might do with it. The jagged edge of the title is both the murder weapon and Close’s facial profile (the two are conflated in the film poster), and her expressions only intensify as she parses Jack’s shifting relation to that phallic surrogate, much as she reserves her harshest features of the trial for when she presents the knife to the jury.
These facial expressions peak in the final act of the film, which is bookended by two sequences that take us back to that primal bedroom crime scene. In the first, Teddy settles into her first morning alone in Jack’s bedroom, after winning him the trial, only to discover a piece of evidence that incriminates him beyond a doubt. Nevertheless, she has to restage the original crime scene in her bedroom to know for sure, as if only in this new erotic thriller topos can she (and we) truly gauge the meaning of Jack’s actions. Between these two summative bedroom scenes, Teddy scrubs her face to a pulp to remove any residue of Jack’s last kiss, before pulling her hair back harshly to throw her features into angular relief. Marquand then uses the longest and stillest shot of the film to present Teddy’s facial contours modulating eerily and ambiguously, as she decides she must lure Jack to her bedroom and kill him herself.
We only realise the import of this shot in retrospect, however, since Marquand abstracts it from the regular space and time of the film, demanding us to gaze on Close’s peak angularity as a spectacle that no narrative resolution can quite contain. Two years later, Adrian Lyne will draw on this intensity in a more muted way, in the iconic scene in Fatal Attraction in which Close’s character flicks a lamp on and off as the camera zooms in against an operatic score. Both shots fulfil essentially the same function, however – namely, to present Close as an emblem of phallic feminity, the fully masculinised woman, that drives the paranoia of the erotic thriller. Since Fatal Attraction is further along in the genre’s evolution, Close has to be punished for that angularity, whereas Jagged Edge is content to let her have the final word.
Despite its slasher and courtroom trappings, then, Jagged Edge discovers the horror at the core of the erotic thriller at the same time that it discovers what would become one of Close’s dominant screen personae – the horror (for conservative audiences) of watching a male-female gender swap unfold before your very eyes, to an extent previously unimaginable within even the most misogynistic classical noir. The flipside of this process is that Jack becomes a kind of homme fatale, taking on the role typically ascribed to women in noir and neo-noir. There’s a kind of reflexive impotence in this characterisation, since it means that Jack can’t express any extremity of masculine sexuality without being subsumed back into the feminine role. Bridges is the perfect actor to navigate this part, since he’s an essentially comic actor, perpetually basking in the glow of some great cosmic joke. Transplanted to the subject of an erotic thriller, this turns him into a predecessor of Sharon Stone’s playful meta-mockery in Basic Instinct, which Verhoeven directs at the audience as much as at the other characters.
This gender swap, and fear of phallic femininity, perhaps explains why the film pulls back from the possibility of one final twist. When Teddy restages the crime scene in her bedroom, she’s still greeted with a masked killer, so there’s the possibility that this might be a disgruntled witness from the trial, which would allow Maruqand to keep Jack’s involvement ambiguous (if only by refusing to return us to the arcane power of that opening bedroom crime scene). But when Teddy removes the mask it’s Jack after all, presumably because the horror of this gender swap was sufficiently intense at such an early stage in the erotic thriller, and possibly because this neat ending is belied by the hyperreality and atmospheric intensity of the film.
For while the erotic thriller partly enacted anxieties about Boomers reaching their forties, it was also a last bulwark of cinema against personal computers, the emergence of the internet and the competition of a fully digitised world. In 1985, those possibilities are all on the distant horizon, but even so Eszterhas’ San Francisco feels every bit as hyperreal as that of Basic Instinct. Every space in Jagged Edge is on the verge of shifting into hyperspace, and becoming a representation of itself. To counter that, Marquand draws on the even more nascent hyperreality of Vertigo, but also sets himself the task of matching this hyperspace with what may be the most atmospheric film, shot for shot, ever set in San Francisco. Every image is a jewel, and in that sense Jagged Edge is already light years ahead of Fatal Attraction, anticipating a mid-90s milieu in which space itself was the erotic thriller’s most erotic asset.