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.
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.
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 cannot 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 deliberately disobeys all of the kidnapper's demands and informs the media and the police; hoping that this will ensure his wife's death.
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 difficult to the amateur kidnappers. Sam fails to 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 titillating 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 is surprised when real evidence turns up — a bottle of chloroform Sam intended to use to sedate his wife, and pictures of Sam with Carol. The kidnapping investigation, which has led to Ken by now, is immediately called off, and Sam is arrested, facing the unhappy prospect of having to get his wife back in order to prove his innocence.
While being held captive in the Kesslers' basement, Barbara exercises to relieve her boredom and loses at least 20 pounds (9 kg). Unexpectedly, Barbara bonds with Sandy, who lets 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 visits 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. In a scuffle, the killer 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. Realizing now that 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 the police following him. He ends up driving off of the end of Santa Monica Pier with the ransom cash inside. The police search the water and retrieve 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 hopes that Barbara will now definitely be killed and he will inherit her $15 million fortune. However, Barbara shows up and misidentifies the serial killer as her kidnapper to the satisfied police. Though Sam is taken aback by how great Barbara looks with her weight loss, she beats him up in retaliation for his actions 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.
- Danny DeVito as Sam Stone
- Bette Midler as Barbara Stone
- Judge Reinhold as Ken Kessler
- Helen Slater as Sandy Kessler
- Anita Morris as Carol Dodsworth
- Bill Pullman as Earl Mott
- William G. Schilling as police chief Henry Benton
- Art Evans as Lt. Bender
- Clarence Felder as Lt. Walters
- J. E. Freeman as Bedroom Killer
- Gary Riley as Heavy Metal Kid
- Phyllis Applegate as Loan officer
The set design for the majority of the interiors of the home of Sam and Barbara Stone extensively employs the Italian radical design furniture and lighting from the Memphis Group.
The directors normally wrote all their own material. However, 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."
While directing Jerry Zucker would be on set talking to the actors while the other two would watch from monitors and give comments.
The film was a financial success, grossing $71.6 million compared to the relatively frugal budget of the film's production. It was Disney's highest-grossing film (excluding reissues). Ruthless People received critical acclaim, and holds a 93% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 42 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." On Metacritic the film has a score of 78% based on reviews from 15 critics. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A-" on an A+ to F scale.
Roger Ebert said that the film "is made out of good performances, a script of diabolical ingenuity, and a whole lot of silliness." Leonard Maltin agreed that this "clever farce" has "lots of laughs, bright performances, but turns sour: these really are unpleasant people!"
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.
The album's soundtrack was released on Epic Records.
The cd release on the song Waiting To See You by Dan Hartman is missing the first several drum bars. The vinyl lp and cassette does not have these first several drum bars missing. The soundtrack version of "Ruthless People" is similar to the version heard in the film, including both an extended intro and a second verse edited out of the single version.