Open main menu

Ruthless People is a 1986 American black comedy film written by Dale Launer, directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, and starring Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, Anita Morris, and Helen Slater, with Bill Pullman in a supporting role in his film debut.

Ruthless People
Ruthless people poster.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed byJim Abrahams
David Zucker
Jerry Zucker
Produced byMichael Peyser
Written byDale Launer
Music byMichel Colombier
CinematographyJan de Bont
Edited byGib Jaffe
Arthur Schmidt
Distributed byBuena Vista Distribution
Release date
  • June 27, 1986 (1986-06-27)
Running time
93 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$9 million[1]
Box office$71.6 million

The film is the story of a couple who kidnap their ex-boss's wife to get revenge and extort money from him. They soon realize he does not want her back and was planning to kill her himself. Meanwhile, the boss's mistress plans a blackmail attempt on him which also does not go as planned.

Although it has been perceived that Ruthless People was influenced by O. Henry's story "The Ransom of Red Chief", writer Dale Launer claims that it was inspired by the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst and that the similarities between the film and the earlier story were a coincidence.[2] It also shares plotline similarities with the 1959 film Too Many Crooks.



Millionaire Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) hates his wife Barbara (Bette Midler). He plans on murdering her to gain control of her $15 million family fortune and run off with his mistress Carol (Anita Morris). He goes home to murder his wife, but he can't find her. The phone rings and an anonymous man tells him that Barbara has been kidnapped and if Sam informs the media or the police, or if any of their detailed demands are not met, they will kill his wife.

Overjoyed, Sam informs the media, the police and deliberately disobeys all of the kidnapper's demands, believing this will ensure his wife's death. However ...

The kidnappers are Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy Kessler (Helen Slater), who want revenge on Sam for stealing Sandy's fashion designs, along with the Kesslers' life savings. Barbara is imprisoned in the Kesslers' basement, where she proves a handful to the amateur kidnappers. Sam doesn't show up with the ransom on several occasions, even when the price is dropped, and it becomes obvious that Sam really wants his wife dead.

Carol, having learned of Sam's plan to kill Barbara, secretly intends to blackmail Sam, with the help of her handsome but dim-witted boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman). Knowing Sam plans to dump his wife's body in the Hollywood Hills at night, Carol has Earl lie in wait with a video camera. He mistakenly films a rendezvous between a prostitute and her client performing noisy sex in the front seat of a car. Earl, hearing the woman's screams, thinks the murder is happening right in front of him.

Without watching the tape, Carol sends an anonymous copy to Sam, who thinks Carol has sent it to him as a tittilating birthday present. He tells Carol he will do the same thing to her, causing her to think he plans to kill her. Carol sends another anonymous copy to police chief Henry Benton (William G. Schilling) — who happens to be the prostitute's client. Benton, thinking that he is being blackmailed, asks for the demands. Carol tells him to arrest Sam Stone for murdering his wife.

Benton orders a search of Sam's house, planning to plant evidence, but real evidence turns up—a bottle of chloroform Sam intended to use to sedate his wife. There also are pictures of Sam with Carol. The kidnapping investigation, which has led to Ken by now, is immediately called off, and Sam is arrested. Sam now faces the unhappy prospect of having to get his wife back in order to prove his innocence.

While being held captive in the Kessler's basement, Barbara takes up exercising to relieve her boredom and loses at least 20 pounds (9 kg). Unexpectedly, Barbara bonds with Sandy, letting Barbara wear some of her dress designs to show off her new figure. Barbara loves them, and offers to go into business with Sandy.

Permitted to leave, Barbara later returns to the Kessler residence when she finds out from the newspaper about Sam's mistress; Barbara now realizes Sam wanted her dead. Unbeknownst to Barbara and the Kesslers, a notorious local serial killer, The Bedroom Killer, had just entered their home and confronts both Barbara and Ken. The serial killer ends up attacking Ken, but instead falls down the basement steps and dies.

Barbara, Ken, and Sandy now set a revenge plot in motion against Sam. Desperate to prove his wife is alive, Sam offers to pay the ransom the moment Ken calls him again. Armed with Barbara's inside knowledge of Sam's finances, they have increased the ransom to equal Sam's entire net worth: over $2 million. Sam is outraged, but has no choice. He withdraws the cash, but begs the police to watch the drop-site. Carol finally views the videotape in a video store, but unknowingly puts the image on every TV in the store, and the police chief is recognized by his wife. Carol realizes now Barbara really was kidnapped. Carol learns the time and place of the ransom drop.

Sam waits with his life savings in cash in a briefcase. Ken arrives in disguise to get the money, but then scores of hidden police suddenly appear. Sam gives the briefcase to Ken, but Earl arrives with a gun, intent on robbing Sam. He instead tries to rob Ken (who is holding the briefcase). In the ensuing confusion, Earl is captured by the police.

Ken takes the briefcase and drives toward the waterfront, with many police cars following him. He drives onto — and eventually off of — the end of Santa Monica Pier with the ransom cash inside. The police search the water and bring up the car, with the body of the Bedroom Killer inside (dressed in Ken's clothes and disguise). Only a few thousand dollars are recovered from the ocean.

Although he has lost all his money, Sam holds out hope that Barbara will now definitely be killed and he'll inherit her $15 million fortune. But Barbara shows up and lies to the police that her kidnapper (the serial killer) was schizophrenic, believing himself to have an accomplice, and so she was able to escape as soon as he left. The police walk away in satisfaction.

Sam, meanwhile, is taken aback by how great Barbara looks with her weight loss. She beats him up in retaliation for all he did and didn't do during her kidnapping, and pushes him into the water. On a nearby beach, Ken emerges from the water in scuba gear, carrying the briefcase with the ransom cash. Sandy runs to embrace him. They are joined by Barbara and all celebrate on the beach together.



The directors normally wrote all their own material. But they were contacted by Michael Eisner of Paramount who "said he had a script that we wouldn't be able to turn down and he was right," said David Zucker. "It was too good. It was very well written with great characters. And hey we wouldn't have to leave town to do it."[3]

While directing Jerry Zucker would be on set talking to the actors while the other two would watch from monitors and give comments.[3]


"This film takes a good, simple idea — the kidnapping of a nagging wife whose husband doesn't want her back — and adds some charismatic casting: Danny DeVito and Bette Midler. One of the delights of the movie is that its script dares to complicate what could have been a much more straightforward yarn. Danny DeVito's character of Sam Stone, a vulgar, wealthy, Bel Air dress manufacturer, is a hard-nosed classic, admitting in the film's opening sequence that he married his wife because she was very, very rich and her wealthy father was very, very sick. Ruthless People contains some of the biggest laughs of 1986."

Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune[4]

The movie was a financial success, grossing $71,600,000 in box office receipts compared to the relatively frugal budget of the film's production. Ruthless People received critical acclaim, and currently holds a 94% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 reviews. The consensus on the site reads: "It's sometimes crude and tasteless, but Ruthless People wrings acid-soaked laughs out of its dark premise and gleefully misanthropic characters." Roger Ebert particularly made it clear that the film "is made out of good performances, a script of diabolical ingenuity and a whole lot of silliness."[5]


Ruthless People
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
Released1986 (1986)

The album's soundtrack was released on Epic Records.

Track listEdit

  1. "Ruthless People" - Mick Jagger
  2. "Give Me the Reason" - Luther Vandross
  3. "Modern Woman" - Billy Joel
  4. "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)" - Paul Young
  5. "No Say In It" - Machinations
  6. "Waiting to See You" - Dan Hartman
  7. "Dance Champion" - Kool and The Gang
  8. "Neighborhood Watch" - Michel Colombier
  9. "Stand on It" - Bruce Springsteen
  10. "Don't You Want My Love" - Nicole McCloud

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Ruthless People". PowerGrid. The Wrap. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  2. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (July 17, 1986). "Hearst Case Inspiration For `Ruthless.`" Chicago Tribune.
  3. ^ a b Directing triumverate shares triumph of 'Ruthless People' Ryan, Desmond. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 03 July 1986: N_AO.
  4. ^ Siskel, Gene (August 8, 1986). "Flick Of Week: `Vagabond` One Of Finest Films In Years". Chicago Tribune.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (June 27, 1986). "RUTHLESS PEOPLE". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2012-06-07.

External linksEdit