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Film / Ruthless People

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[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"note , Ruthless People is a 1986 Black Comedy film that has the distinction of being the only traditional, non-Rapid-Fire Comedy by the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker team. It also proved to be the last time all three men would direct as a trio.

Businessman Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is planning to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), but before he gets the chance, she's kidnapped by a married couple who Sam cheated out of their life savings. Sam is overjoyed at this turn of events, since it saves him the trouble of killing her himself. Unfortunately for him, they're not very good at the kidnapping thing, and fail to be the ruthless people they claim to be. They're incapable of harming Barbara, even as she verbally assaults them and Sam ignores their instructions, refuses their demands, and eventually tries to goad them into violence.

Meanwhile Sam's mistress, Carol, and her other boyfriend, the incredibly dim-witted Earl, are plotting to blackmail Sam for Barbara's murder, and things go even more awry.

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.
  • Agony of the Feet: At some point during Barbara’s second escape attempt, she bites Ken on the hand (he’s managed to accidentally give himself a whiff of the chloroform he was going to use on her) in order to make him drop the gun (read: lighter) that he’s training on her (or at least trying to), which he does- directly onto her foot. Cue screams of pain from both parties.
  • Animated Credits Opening: The opening credits, designed by renowned indie animator Sally Cruikshank, are a clever series of ruthless acts, like stabbing, poisoning, arson, etc.
  • Anti-Villain: Ken and Sandy aren't bad people in any shape or form. If anything, they're two of the nicest people in the entire movie. The reason they kidnap Barbara is because they were ripped off by Sam and are just trying to get their money back. Even then, they're more than accommodating with Barbara, even befriending her and teaming up with her to finally get the ransom money in the end.
  • 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.
    • A similar reveal later with Ken and Sandy that’s also part Motive Rant: “You are the spandex miniskirt king. (Points at a photo of Sam Stone) Not him. He is the spandex miniskirt thief.“
  • Auto Erotica: Chief Benton has wild sex with a prostitute at night in his car. Earl (who's not paying attention) thinks that's it's Sam murdering Barbara, and catches the whole thing on tape.
  • 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, taking him to a bee farm and forcing him to dance around.
    Barbara: Then we all watch, while they sting him to death! YEAH!
  • Beneath Notice: Ken, Sandy and eventually Barbara are all thought to be harmless. It makes it easy for them to band together and take Sam for all he's worth.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: One of the One Dialogue, Two Conversations has Carol thinking Sam wants her to have sex with a dog...and then thinking that Sam wants to have sex with the dog himself.
  • Bill... Bill... Junk... Bill...: Sam does almost exactly this when he returns home.
    Sam: "Junk, garbage, garbage, junk..."
  • Blackmail: Carol and Earl try to do this with Sam at first, planning to tape him murdering his wife. Except Earl didn't bother to watch what he was taping and they ended up a video of something else instead. Ironically, they unintentionally do this to Chief Benton when they send him the tape, still thinking it was Sam killing Barbara, as the tape was really of Benton, a married man, boning a hooker.
  • Broken Pedestal: Barbara is less-than-pleased to find out Sam's deception.
  • Call-Back: Talking about business with a policeman, Sam tells him "A bad salesman will automatically drop his price. Bad salesmen make me sick." A few moments later, Ken calls Sam about the ransom:
    Ken: Well, what about... less?
    Sam: (covers the phone) You make me sick.
    • Bonus points for him using the same “tied up in investments or some crap” excuse he was relating to the policeman.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Early in the film, Sam describes Barbara as "meticulous". She later gives the Kesslers a detailed list of all of his assets, allowing them to extort every last penny he has in exchange for returning her to him.
  • 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)
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: The kidnappers escape police scrutiny by making the them believe the Bedroom Killer was the true culprit.
  • Description 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?!
  • Didn't See That Coming:
    • Ken and Sandy plan to extort Sam for their share of the money from Sandy's stolen idea for spandex miniskirts by kidnapping the wife of the man who stole the idea. They didn't expect that every demand they gave him, he'd do his damndest not to do anything they asked so they'd kill her.
    • Chief Benton plans to plant evidence implicating Sam in Barbara's disappearance, thinking he'd being blackmailed into arresting an innocent man. To his astonishment, his men discover real evidence implicating Sam—the bottle of chloroform he planned to use, and photos of Sam with Carol.
  • The Ditz / Dumb Blonde: Earl.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Downplayed, as Muffy wasn't exactly a helpless victim of Sam's, but she does lead the police to the bottle of chloroform he planned to use on Barbara, resulting in Sam getting arrested.
  • The '80s: Dear Lord, yes. Especially the fashions.
    Earl: (seeing his fish) Crockett and Tubbs... they're floatin'!
    • Interestingly, however, the 1986 film has some proto-The '90s elements to it. This includes the animated opening sequence, which looks far more appropriate for early-1990s television than mid-80s.
  • 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 akin to a snoring sheep) 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.
  • The Fantastic Trope of Wonderous Titles: The German title is Die unglaubliche Entführung der verrückten Mrs. Stone (The Incredible Kidnapping of Crazy Mrs. Stone), inspired by the German title of Airplane!.
  • 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) Sometimes, if it’s a 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... BLEEDING...
    (Sandy screams and runs away.)
    Barbara: Endlessly!!!
    • 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.
      Ken: You're very good at this. You should write children's books.
  • For the Lulz: 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.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Zig-zagged all over the place. Carol tries to have Sam arrested for Barbara's murder, but the Chief of Police misinterprets her request as blackmail, leading to him planting evidence in Sam's house, only to discover real evidence that Sam had done it. In fact, Sam was technically innocent, but he'd been planning to kill her... only for her to be kidnapped, screwing up everyone's plans.
  • 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!" Mrs. Benton, we presume?
    • As Sam is getting the money to pay the ransom, in the background, Police Chief Benton is getting money and his passport together.
  • 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.
  • 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: Wouldn't it be better if we struck at the core of Sam's being? His reason for living?
      Sandy: Well, what would that be?
      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.
  • Hollywood Geography: In the final chase, LAX is not anywhere near the route between Hope Street Plaza and the Santa Monica 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.
  • Hypocritical Humour:
    • Ken gently carrying a spider out of the house while expounding to Sandy the necessity of thinking ruthless. (And then opening the door again to stomp on it.)
    • Sam feels betrayed when his attack dog, Adolf, becomes friends with Muffy instead of killing her, and has torn up his tuxedo, despite the fact that he was planning to betray Barbara in a much worse way.
  • Identifying the Body: Sam is brought in to identify his wife Barbara. When the corpse is revealed, it's a black man. Sam deadpans, "That's not her."
  • I Have Your Wife: Inverted, as Sam actually wants rid of Barbara anyway, meaning he listens to their demands... and does the exact opposite.
  • 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 is devious and/or ruthless. Also, they're the only ones who end up successful in what they planned.
  • Jerkass: There are times where you'd be questioning why Barbara would marry someone as irredeemable as Sam, who doesn't exactly hide what a complete scumbag he is. On the other hand, as noted under Affably Evil, he is capable of fooling people when he needs to.
  • Just in Time: The police are questioning Ken about how his tire print looks exactly like the one left at the crime scene, and he's claiming a Potty Emergency to try to escape, when a detective's beeper goes off, letting them know that evidence has been found that Sam was behind it. They wish him luck and leave, not noticing that he's hanging out of the window above them as they go.
  • Karma Houdini: A surprisingly heroic example. Neither Ken nor Sandy end up getting caught by the police, and get to keep the ransom money they so-rightly deserve.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Sam. Not only does he end up losing his entire net worth, but he also ends up getting beaten up by Barbara for everything he did and didn't do while she was kidnapped.
  • Large Ham: Barbara and Sam.
    • Barbara’s finest moment of ham has to be her execution talk with Sandy above.
  • Lima Syndrome: The Kesslers and Barbara.
  • 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 was actually planning 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.
    • Played straight when the serial killer breaks into Ken and Sandy's home.
  • 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 wife 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 bitchin’ part about it. It don’t matter. If you can't afford it, fuckin' finance it! So what if it's as big as Subaru and costs as much, you'll never have to trade this in! This is gonna be with you for the rest of your life! And when you die, they can bury you in it!"), but when he sees said kid has a pregnant wife, he backs off and suggests the bargain speakers again.
    Ken: I'm no criminal. I can't even sell retail, and that's legal!
  • Obviously Evil: On the other hand, Sam's so malicious, if he had a handlebar mustache he'd twirl it.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The feeling of the mugger who attempts to rob Sam... right in the middle of a failed ransom drop-off swarming with undercover cops just itching to arrest someone.
    • Sam's expression when he hears Barbara's voice at the end.
    • Earl when he realises he's surrounded by what seems like the entire local police department.
    • Words cannot describe the look on Chief Benton's face when he watches the video of him having sex with prostitute in his car.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Constantly. Wacky misunderstandings are the basis of much of the plot. One of the biggest examples is when Carol and Earl think they're taping Sam murdering his wife, but instead accidentally got the chief of police on tape having sex with a prostitute. When Sam sees the tape, he calls Carol and promises "to do the same to you", which she thinks is a threat, so she sends the tape to the chief of police, who thinks he's being blackmailed.
    Chief: Come on! What's the big deal? It's just a lonely man who wanted a little excitement. That kind of thing happens every day. Everybody does it!
    Carol: I don't believe this. I don't believe you said that!
    Chief: Men get the urge. We're only human!
  • Only a Lighter: The "gun" Ken uses to threaten Barbara with when she tries to escape. She doesn't realize it until after she's grabbed it away from him.
  • 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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sam gives this to Ken over his failure to actually kill Barbara despite his threats in doing so. See Refuge in Audacity.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The entire film, summed up by this exchange:
    Sam: What's this phone call about?
    Ken: We call to make you an offer. An offer you can't refuse.
    Sam: Oh?
    Ken: Yeah, $10,000.
    Sam: Fat chance!
    Sam: I believe this is a joke, pal, and you're it! The last time we spoke you said my wife would be in the morgue if I didn't pay. Well, I didn't pay and just today I was at the morgue and she wasn't there. You lied to me! You know what I think of you?
    Ken: (utterly defeated) No.
    Sam: You got no nuts! What do I have to do? Put a gun in your hand, aim and pull your finger down, you spineless wimp?! I dare you to kill her! (slams phone down) Now that oughta do it!
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder:
    Earl: Do I look that stupid?
  • 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.
  • Shrinking Violet: Sandy is a rather shy, softly-spoken, easily-spooked and mousy type of person who clearly isn't particularly well-suited to the whole 'kidnapping' lifestyle. Barbara ends up drawing her out of her shell a little bit.
  • Sic 'Em: "Muffy, meet Adolf. Adolf, EAT MUFFY!"
  • 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. In fact, it works so badly, he still gets arrested for it!
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Barbara, elated for having lost twenty pounds while staying with the Kesslers, actually starts bonding with Sandy over her dress designs and even offers to go into business with her. When she realizes that Sam really wanted her dead, she chooses to help the Kesslers blackmail Sam.
  • 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.
  • Toilet Humour: When the police are interviewing Ken at work, he claims he has stomach flu and goes into the bathroom to try to escape. The police officer, hearing him groaning as he gets stuck in the window, sympathizes with what sounds like an extremely unpleasant time on the toilet.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Earl is presumably arrested for trying to steal the ransom money from Ken, but we never see Carol again.
  • You Can Keep Her!: A classic example. Given how much Sam hates Barbara and wants to be rid of her, he makes absolutely no attempt to cooperate with Ken and Sandy; in fact, he actively antagonizes them in the hopes that they will actually kill Barbara. This backfires when he's arrested on suspicion of murdering Barbara and suddenly needs her alive again to prove otherwise.
  • You Remind Me of X: The Bedroom Killer thinks Barbara looks like his mother, and Ken looks like his father. He murderously hates both.
    Barbara: So, if I look like his mother and you look like his father... this is what our son would look like. Pretty strong argument for birth control.


Video Example(s):


Ruthless Credits

The opening credits to Ruthless People. I could tell you who's in the movie, and who designed the credit sequence and all that, but why would I do that when you could just watch 'em?

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / AnimatedCreditsOpening

Media sources: