Film: Ruthless People

[to the kidnappers] "What do I have to do? Put a gun in your hand, aim and pull your finger down, you spineless wimp?! [cue Ken sagging in defeat] I dare you to kill her! [hangs up] Now that oughta do it!"
Sam Stone

A modern update of O Henry's The Ransom Of Red Chief, and the first traditional, non-Rapid-Fire Comedy by Zucker Abrahams Zucker. Businessman Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is married to Barbara (Bette Midler), but he hates her, having wed her only for her money. In fact, Sam has decided to murder Barbara for her inheritance. But before he can kill her, she gets kidnapped by a nice young married couple, Sandy and Ken Kessler (Helen Slater and Judge Reinhold), who are trying to recoup the money Sam made off of an idea he stole from them. Unfortunately, they're not very good at the kidnapping thing, and fail to be the ruthless people they should be. Sam does everything they tell him not to (like calling the cops), so they will kill Barbara like they threatened to. She ends up being "marked down" several times, but he refuses to pay. Meanwhile Sam's mistress, Carol Dodsworth (Anita Morris), and her other boyfriend, the incredibly dim-witted Earl Mott (Bill Pullman, in his hilarious first role), try to blackmail Sam for the murder of Barbara, which hasn't even happened... yet...

Confused yet? Well don't worry, it all makes sense when you see it. The "drama" is all Played for Laughs to make for a very funny movie which features attack dogs, an accidental extortion of the area police chief, a seemingly-unrelated Serial Killer, and quite possibly the stupidest person on the face of the earth.


  • Affably Evil: Sam. The police think he's great, and there's a reason Barbara thinks he loves her.
  • Animated Credits Opening: The opening credits are a clever series of ruthless acts, like stabbing, poisoning, arson, etc.
  • As You Know: In the opening monologue, Sam tells Carol about how he got married to Barbara. She even tells him he's told her the story many times.
  • Auto Erotica: Chief Benton has wild sex with a prostitute at night in his car while Earl Mott is filming both of them in an attempt to prove Sam Stone murdered his wife.
  • Bee Bee Gun: At one point, after learning of Sam's infidelity and his refusal to pay the ransom, Barbara fantasizes punishing him by covering with honey and taking him to a bee farm.
  • Bill... Bill... Junk... Bill...: Sam does almost exactly this when he returns home.
    Sam: "Junk, garbage, garbage, junk..."
  • Broken Pedestal: Barbara is less-than-pleased to find out Sam's deception.
  • Compensating for Something: Strongly hinted by Ken by anyone who wants the massive Dominator speakers.
    Male buyer: Yeah, uh, what do you think of this one? (winks at girlfriend)
    Ken: The Dominator X1? The Dominator's a good marketing idea, but it's really not a good speaker. (half-whispers) We give it a 500% markup, so we sell it at 50% off, giving the customer the illusion he's getting a deal, but we still make a bundle.
    Girlfriend: But it's so big and impressive!
    Ken: Size means very little. Bigger is not necessarily better. (beat) I sound like Dr. Ruth.
    Girlfriend: You mean the Dominator's like a, uh—
    (at this point, the Male Buyer is looking VERY sheepish and embarrassed)
    Ken: Well, the Dominators are very popular with men who'd like to have bigger... uh...
    Girlfriend: Equipment?
    Ken: Exactly!
    (the Male Buyer looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here now)
  • The Ditz / Dumb Blonde: Earl.
  • The '80s: Dear Lord, yes. Especially the fashions.
    Earl: (seeing his fish) Crockett and Tubbs... they're floatin'!
    • Interestingly, however, the 1987 film has some proto-The '90s elements to it.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening dialogue of the film consists of Sam telling Carol that he married Barbara only for her money, that he hates her with every fiber of his being, and that he is going to thoroughly enjoy killing her by throwing her off a cliff so he can inherit her money. Not counting the animated opening credits, the film hasn't reached its first minute and already we hate (or absolutely love) this guy.
    Sam: I had to live with that squealing, corpulent little toad all these years. God, I hate that woman. I - I - I hate the way she licks stamps! I hate her furniture! And I hate that little sound she makes when she sleeps. (makes wheezing sounds) And that filthy little shitbag dog of hers... "Muffy"!
    Carol: Aren't you scared?
    Sam: Scared? Hell, no. I'm looking forward to it. My only regret, Carol, is that the plan isn't more violent.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: "My tux. My silk tux. Et tu, Adolf? Et tu?"
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Carol and Earl. They blanche at the thought of murder.
  • Evil Redhead: Carol plans to blackmail Sam, although she's otherwise not that villainous.
  • Fat Suit: Bette Midler wears one for pre-captured Barbara.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Barbara, and how! For example, she frightens Sandy with state execution talk.
    Barbara: It could mean the difference between life, and the chair! (pretends to be electrocuted violently) Or the gas chamber. (makes hissing and gasping sounds) You know, sometimes, the firing squad? They miss all the major arteries! BANG! (slumps as if shot) And you don't die right away, you kinda just... hang on... bleeding... BLEEDING...
    (Sandy screams and runs away.)
    • To Ken, who doesn't scare as easily:
    Barbara: (whistles) Nice butt. That's what they'll say.
    Ken: I beg your pardon?
    Barbara: Nice butt. That's what they'll say on your first day, in the men's club.
    Ken: The men's club?
    Barbara: Mmm. The San Quentin Country Club. With a cute little rear end like that, you'll be the belle of the ball. Your dance card'll be filled every day. You'll be so popular, making all kinds of new, close friends. Big, ugly, hairy friends! Not that you'll ever see what they look like, 'cause you'll be facing the other way.
  • For the Evulz: Sam loves wrong phone numbers.
    Sam: Hello? Debbie? Yeah, Debbie's here, who's this? Well, Ralph, uh, Debbie can't talk right now, my dick's in her mouth. How about if I have her call you back later when I'm done? (hangs up) I love wrong numbers.
  • Funny Background Event: Two detectives walk along the boardwalk discussing how great it is that Barbara and Sam have been reunited. Meanwhile, Barbara is kicking Sam's ass behind them.
    • Also when the police come to Sam and ask him to come and identify the body, uniformed officers are playing tennis on his tennis court.
    • When the Benton video is played on department store televisions, an offscreen woman can be heard exclaiming, "That's my husband!"
  • Gambit Pileup:
    • Ken and Sandy kidnap Barbara because her husband Sam stole Sandy's spandex miniskirt idea (and thought Barbara was complicit as well.)
    • Sam wants to goad the kidnappers into killing Barbara so he can inherit her fortune and live happily ever after with his mistress Carol.
    • Carol is pretending to have the hots for Sam so she can blackmail him for the murder.
  • Gilligan Cut: When Barbara arrives at her kidnappers' home.
    *cut to Sam, popping open a champagne bottle*
    Sam: [cackles, pours] Bye bye, Barbara!
    • And the first ransom phonecall, where the kidnappers tell Sam not to contact the police or the media or his wife will die. Cut to a huge slew of TV vans and police cruisers around his house.
      Ken: (incredulous) What did he do, hire a publicist?!
  • Gold Digger: Sam on Barbara, Carol on Sam.
  • Groin Attack: Barbara fantasizes about this.
    Barbara: Castrate him! I wanna castrate him! [demonstrates]
    • This exchange:
      Ken: What can we deprive Sam of that would really get to the core of his being?
      Barbara: HIS TESTICLES!
    • She also does it once or twice to Ken when trying to escape.
    • Also pay attention to exactly how she ends up kicking Sam off the pier.
  • Home Porn Movie: This is what the "evidence tape" turns out to be.
  • Humiliation Conga: Starts on Sam when he get arrested for the murder of his wife.
  • I Have Your Wife: Inverted, as Sam actually wants rid of Barbara anyway.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: The prostitute having sex with Chief Benton:
    Chief Benton: I like a woman who makes a lot of sound.
    Prostitute: Uh-huh. Well, I'll scream my head off if you want to, honey. It's your money.
    Chief Benton: Yeah, my wife just lays there like a gunnysack.
    • Then when they proceed to 'get it on', her screams are so loud that Earl thinks the murder that's supposed to happen is especially brutal.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: When Earl and Carol deduce that Barbara's kidnapping was real:
    Carol: Barbara really was kidnapped!
    [cut to Sam in the police station]
    Sam: [pleading] She really was kidnapped!
    • Bonus points for the DVD chapter also saying, "She Really Was Kidnapped".
  • Irony: The only two characters who we actually see commit a crime (as opposed to just planning one like most of the other characters) are Ken and Sandy, who are also the two nicest and kindest characters in the movie. Everyone else are devious and/or ruthless.
  • It's X, I Hate X: The serial killer tells Barbara "You remind me of my mother. I hate my mother."
  • Large Ham: Barbara and Sam.
  • Lima Syndrome: The Kesslers and Barbara.
  • Los Angeles
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: A simple kidnapping turns into this by the end of the movie.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: The Kesslers and Barbara, partly due to them being nicer to her than her husband apparently ever was.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: A justified form in that Sam said he was going to kill Barbara. Things just get really confused over what actually happens.
  • The Mistress: Carol
  • Mood Whiplash: Deliberately by Barbara, who is supposed to pretend to be a helpless kidnappee who needs Sam, but is so vengeful she needs to insult him.
    Barbara: (on phone with Sam) Do you have it all? 2.2 million dollars in unmarked, non-sequential bills? YOU MISERABLE SCUM-SUCKING PIG! Oh, I'm sorry, honey. They made me say that.
    Sam: Yeah, it's all here.
    Barbara: And you have it all in a briefcase? YOU SCUMBAG, YOU LOWLIFE MOTHERFUCKER! I'm sorry. They made me say that too! (she grins and sips some wine)
    • What really makes the scene is the unabashed, avid grin on Barbara's face during the scene.
  • Most Definitely Not a Villain: Ken and Sandy.
  • Never Found the Body: Subverted after the kidnapper and his car falls into the water at the pier. A short time later, we see the police fishing the corpse of the Bedroom Killer (who died earlier in the kidnapper's house by accident) out of the water (the kidnappers put him there as a decoy) while the kidnapper survives thanks to SCUBA gear and makes it to the beach to be reunited with his girlfriend and Mrs. Stone before the end credits roll.
  • Nice Guy: Ken, who refuses to force people to buy the biggest speakers in the store, and even tells them how the store rips people off with them by overpricing. At one point, Ken, infuriated at being manipulated into dropping the ransom again by Sam, decided to be "ruthless" and force a kid barely out of school into buying the expensive speakers even though he can't afford it ("That's the beauty of it. If you can't afford it, fuckin' finance it! Who cares if it's as big as Subaru and costs twice as much, you'll never have to upgrade it and when you die you can be buried in 'em!"), but when he sees said kid has a pregnant wife, he backs off and suggests the bargain speakers again. Dawwwwwww...
  • Obviously Evil: On the other hand, Sam's so malicious, if he had a handlebar mustache he'd twirl it.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Constantly. Sam talks about the kidnapping but Carol thinks he's talking about the murder he had planned. Carol thinks she's talking about evidence that proves Sam killed his wife but Chief Benton thinks he's being blackmailed into arresting an innocent man. Sam talks about having rough sex but Carol thinks he's threatening to torture and kill her.
  • Only Sane Man: Ken often comes across as this.
  • Pity the Kidnapper: Just at first.
  • Police Are Useless: They don't have a clue as to what's happening until Carol orders the Chief to arrest Sam Stone.
  • Pretty in Mink: Carol has a dark mink coat and a white mink jacket.
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: The Kesslers' basement is for Barbara. She loses a fair amount of weight in a very short time, which actually sparks her friendship with her kidnappers.
    • Though, it's not a well-thought-out execution of the trope. Barbara is there at most two weeks, not enough time to lose 20+ pounds, at least not safely. She also says she's eating less, which makes sense in terms of burning calories, but also begs the question of why she looks slim and fit instead of starved.
  • Prison Rape: Barbara threatens Ken with it; when Sam's thrown in jail, one of the inmates makes a move on him.
  • Sexy Coat Flashing: Carol shows up at Sam's office on his birthday with only a teddy under her mink coat.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Even Sam, who loathes Barbara, is flabbergasted with how svelte she becomes.
  • Southern Belle: Carol, which is to be expected for a character played by Anita Morris.
  • Split-Screen Phone Call: Twice, between Carol and Chief Benton discussing Sam's arrest and then his release.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Sam tries to get his wife killed by failing to pay the ransom. It doesn't work.
  • Sweater Girl: Carol has a few sweaters.
  • Title Drop: Danced around by Ken, who tells Sandy that they need to "think ruthless."
  • Title Theme Tune: The opening song by Mick Jagger.
  • Threat Backfire: The whole movie revolves around this.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Earl Mott, who among other things inserts himself into a hostage/robbery scenario after the police have already surrounded the scene.
    Lt. Bender: [in megaphone] This is the Los Angeles Police Department.
    Earl: [calling] Really?
    Lt. Bender: [in megaphone]! We're the National Rifle Association! [cue row of officers aiming guns at Earl, who drops his in shock]
    • Lampshaded by the police detectives at the scene of the above:
    Lt. Walters: This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Perhaps we should shoot him.
    • Also Lampshaded by Carol, when confused by the Police Chief's reaction to the "evidence" tape. When she says, "Either the chief is a complete moron and complete morons are rare... ", her eyes fix for a second on Earl.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Barbara. Even granting the understandable stresses she's put under she's a pretty horrible person at the beginning of the movie, and it's heavily suggested that her unpleasant personality was a factor long before she was kidnapped. Spending time with the Kesslers, however, and losing weight has an improving effect on her personality and she gradually becomes a much nicer person.
  • Wealthy Ever After: Ken, Sandy, and Barbara after making off with most of the ransom money.
  • You Can Keep Her: A classic example.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The Chief gets caught in some very off the wall implications of this.