Ruthless People

By Judy Berman

When someone does you wrong, how do you handle it? Do you feel powerless?

There’s no need to. You can turn the tables on the bad guy.

There should be an app for that. One you can download – off the Internet or from your local library.

Take a page out of O. Henry’s short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” written in 1910. Two kidnappers’ scheme to rip someone off backfires. But getting found out was not the worst of it.

The kidnappers get more than they bargained for when they grab a rich man’s son and hold him for ransom. It soon becomes clear to the men who the real hostages are. Before long, they’re only too willing to pay off the boy’s father so he’ll take his son back.

A twist of that theme has endless possibilities. Here’s how it played out in the movie, “Ruthless People” (1986). Sam Stone (Danny Devito) plans to kill his wife, Barbara (Bette Midler), so he can inherit her fortune. His plot hits a snag when a kidnapper calls and demands Sam pay a ransom of $500,000 to get his wife back … or she’ll be killed if Sam doesn’t pay up.

The conniving, little fiend is delighted, thinking someone else is going to do his dirty work for him, and he’ll soon have Barbara’s fortune.

The kidnappers, Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy Kessler (Helen Slater), hatched this scheme to get back at the Sam for profiting from a fashion design he stole from Sandy.

Too late, Ken realizes he has double-trouble: Barbara is a terror that he’d be only too eager to return and her husband doesn’t want her back. Ken drops his demand to $50,000 after Sam fails to show for the ransom drop.

Unaware of the stalled negotiations, Barbara has been working out in her kidnappers’ cellar. She’s dropped about 20 pounds. Sandy notices, brings out designer clothes that would make any fashionista ecstatic and suggests Barbara try them on. They are Sandy’s creations.

Sandy confides to Barbara that she was kidnapped to get back at Sam and her for stealing her creative ideas and profiting from it. Barbara tells Sandy she didn’t know Sam had stolen Sandy’s designs.

Then, Barbara asks when she’s going to be released. Sandy reluctantly tells her that Sam will not pay the ransom, even though they just dropped their demand to $10,000.

Barbara’s dumbfounded. She’s worth a fortune. She cries, “I’m being marked down? I’ve been kidnapped by Kmart!”

Sam’s girlfriend has get-rich plans of her own. Carol (Anita Morris), a gold-digger, conspires with her dimwitted boyfriend, Earl Mott (Bill Pullman), to blackmail Sam. She wants Earl to videotape Sam when he disposes his wife’s body.

Carol doesn’t bother to view the tape first and mails it to police. Instead, the videotaped evidence will show another “crime” in progress. Carol convinces police to investigate Barbara’s disappearance. When they’re snooping around, Sam realizes he better bring Barbara back alive … or, he could be charged with her murder.

Now, Sam is only too eager to pay the ransom. There’s just one little glitch. Barbara’s cooked up a plan with the kidnappers to fleece Sam out of more than $2 million.

Sam’s outraged, but he agrees to meet Ken. When Carol learns of the drop, she tells Earl to go steal the ransom money.

They’re not clowning around as they wrestle with ransom payoff.What follows is Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will. Cops lay in wait for Ken to show up. The slow-speed chase that follows and the final outcome are hysterical. Revenge is sweet.

It’s an ending that O. Henry would approve of. Perhaps, it will provide inspiration to you should you want to even the score.

Movie Trailer – Ruthless People – Barbara attempts to escape her kidnappers 

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Video: Ruthless People – “I’ve been kidnapped by Kmart”

Video – Music – Ruthless People sung by Mick Jagger

  1. I recalled reading O. Henry’s, “The Ransom of Red Chief” –he was a great storyteller! I have not yet seen “Ruthless People”–but I will shortly! Lovely review…maybe that is the added ingredient for revenge…humor! Thank you for sharing your wonderful writing!

    1. Humor does provide a much needed reprieve and, perhaps, a twisted perspective to get us over the hump. I’m thinking of a line in the movie, “42,” about Jackie Robinson when he was taken away from a place he was staying at. It was for his own safety … he laughed and said: “I thought I was being cut from the team.” Thanks for your comments, Jane.

  2. Hi Judy,

    Great post, as always.

    With you permission, I would take a contrary view here.

    Mahatma Gandhi showed the world the power of non violence, of not reacting back when someone does wrong to you. For when someone wrongs you, it is really not about you, it is all about the perpetrator. Gandhi taught the world the efficacy of turning the other cheek for the perpetrator to hit you again.

    A while back, I too had mused on this aspect of the attacker and the attacked and invite you to that post.


    1. Shakti … As an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful approach to life, I would agree with your view. It’s a good point to remember: “when someone wrongs you, it is not really about you, it is all about the perpetrator.”

      The movie, however, offers one an opportunity to fantasize about getting the upper hand on a situation where someone is trying to take advantage of you. Once I returned to your post, I recall my thoughts when I commented at that time.

      If Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) was put in his wife’s life to teach her a lesson she needed to learn, she taught him one herself: stop thinking of only yourself, stop coveting other people’s wealth, and appreciate people for who they are – not for what you can grab for yourself. (Humor also can deliver a powerful message.) 🙂

  3. “I’m being marked down?” That’s a great line. Bette Midler is a wonderful actress, Judy, but let’s not forget that someone had to write the script.

    Thanks for this excellent movie review. And now I may go looking for that O. Henry story, too.

    1. While Bette Midler didn’t write the line, she did deliver it to perfection. Now, if only I could get someone to script my lines for me. 🙂

      Charles, I think you’ll like that O. Henry story. It is out on DVD, but IMHO, the short story is far better. The one version I saw was almost like The Three Stooges Meet a Little Terror.

  4. O. Henry? Reminds me of a candy bar. Oh wait, I guess that was Oh Henry! Sales really jumped when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run… : )

    O. Henry always makes me think of The Last Leaf. Now I’ll be crying all day… : (

    Cheers, Judy! : )

    1. I loved the twists in O. Henry’s stories, Mark. My favorite might be “The Gift of the Magi” – I think that’s the one where husband and wife are poor and each gives up something to afford a special gift for their spouse. I haven’t read, “The Last Leaf.” Now, I’m curious.

  5. Glad to have seen this, I’ll have to catch this one on Netflix. Recently watched Parental Guidance with Bette Midler and enjoyed it. She and Billy Crystal had great chemistry.

    1. Lisa, I want to check out that movie just because I do love Bette Midler and Billy Crystal. They are hysterical. I think you’ll love “Ruthless People.” Let me know.

  6. Loved this movie Judy. I adore Danny de Vito’s comic timing.. My favourite of all his movies is ‘My Cousin Vinny’, with Marissa Tomei.

      1. You’re right. Joe Pesci was in “My Cousin Vinny.” He and Marissa Tomei were a riot: “Oh, yeah. You blend.” (After Pesci (as Vincent La Guardia Gambino) tells her that she sticks out like a sore thumb in the little country town they’re in.)

        Danny DeVito has been in many movies I have just howled with laughter over.

  7. I really enjoyed this flick, and it’s one I went into not expecting much. I didn’t see it on its original run, but watched it shortly after that on the VCR (VCRs were devices not unlike the digital recorder on your television, a forerunner of DVDs, if you remember those).

    At the time, I didn’t care much for Danny DeVito, having only seen him in Taxi, which I can appreciate more now as an adult. I didn’t really see Bette Midler as an actress at all, although I think I’d already seen her in “Opportunity Knocks” (I think that’s the right movie; the one I’m thinking of is a buddy comedy with her and Shelly Long), which was cute.

    I loved the movie, and came away with a new respect for both Midler and DeVito. Midler’s character proved to be really likable, and I thought DeVito’s character, while deliciously UNlikable, was different enough from the cretinous, misanthropic homunculus he played in Taxi.

    I haven’t thought of this movie in a while. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. You’re spot on, Smaktakula. Danny DeVito does play a deliciously UNlikable character in “Ruthless People” and the chemistry he had with Bette Midler was stellar. (I do recall VCRs – chuckle. I have way too many videocassettes that I can no longer play because my VCR is broken.) In the beginning, Midler was tough and it was hard to root for her even though DeVito (as Sam) wanted to knock her off. By the end, I was cheering her on.
      I believe I first fell in love with the sleazy/smarmy side of him in “Romancing the Stone” (1984) I was totally hooked by the time “Wise Guys” came out in 1986 with Joe Piscopo, and then with “Get Shorty” (1995).
      I was not a big “Taxi” fan even though I loved some of the actors who were in that TV series. Thank you for your comments.

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