Film Noir Friday: Family Plot [1976]


Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is FAMILY PLOT, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Karen Black, Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris and William Devane.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

A phony psychic and con man are a conniving couple who plot to swindle an old lady out of her fortune by telling her they can find her long-lost nephew. In the process, their lives become intertwined with a larcenous jewel merchant and his beautiful girlfriend who have an affinity for kidnapping.

The Mad Professor, Conclusion

Tracy Leroy Nute, alleged teenage victim of Professor Max Bernard Franc’s “homosexual rage”, was described by his mother, Judy Nute, as a “sentimental” and “naive” kid with problems. Interviewed in her Kansas home she said that her son had been in trouble with the law, “but nothing that any rowdy teenager wouldn’t have gotten into.”

Tracy’s scrapes with the law may have been minor, but at some point Judy found it impossible to handle him and he spent much of his time in juvenile homes. The homes in which he was placed didn’t work out and he decided, like many unhappy kids, to head for Southern California. His destination was Hollywood where he intended to become an actor. Runaways have been coming  to Hollywood in droves with the same dream since the first studios appeared in the 1910s. But big dreams die hard and fast when the reality of street life sets in–everything is a struggle–food, cigarettes, a place to crash. Tracy, like other teenage transplants before him, was most likely welcomed to town by drug dealers and pimps, not an agent with a movie contract. Tracy’s home state’s motto is Ad Astra per Aspera (To the Stars through Difficulties). He never reached a star, he never had the chance. By the spring of 1987 he was turning tricks, and by summer he was dead.

Max contended that he wasn’t Tracy’s killer and that the murder had been committed by a gay prostitute by the name of Terry Adams. According to Max, Terry had even lived with him for a while in Fresno. Did Terry exist? Sheriff’s investigators never found him; and Max was so terrified of being outed that he’d gone to great lengths to conduct a secret life in Hollywood. Would he have risked everything to bring a lover to Fresno? It is doubtful.

The trial was as interesting as had been anticipated. Rumors circulated that Tracy had attempted to extort money from Max. If true the kid had morphed quickly from a naive Kansas runaway to a street-wise Hollywood blackmailer.

Public Defender, Mark Kaiserman, admitted that Max was a voyeur who suffered from poor judgment. Explicit photos of the victim were found among the hundreds discovered in Max’s apartment. Interestingly, no photos of his alleged lover were found. The attorney unveiled a unique defense which was based primarily on Max’s ineptitude. Kaiserman argued that Max was too “nerdy” and too much of “a klutz” to wield handle a gun, let alone manage a chain saw. Kaiserman reminded jurors that Max had cemented over the entire yard at his Fresno home to avoid using a lawn mower.

nerd headline

Was it a creative defense? Without a doubt. Was it an effective defense? Unfortunately for Max, no. He was found guilty of Tracy’s murder. Fear of exposure, if that was the motive for the slaying, easily explained how Max was able to overcome his nerdiness and commit such an atrocious murder.

The jury accepted the prosecution’s case that characterized the defendant as a man overcome by homosexual rage and rejected the defense argument that Max was too wimpy to have committed the crime. max blows kiss

At his sentencing hearing Max’s sister, Carol Waiters, a psychiatric social worker from Philadelphia, made a plea for leniency on her brother’s behalf. She implored Judge John H. Reid to consider “the whole person” rather than the part of his personality that drove him to murder. On July 28, 1988, Judge Reid sentenced Max to from 25 years to life with the possibility of parole in 17 years.

Max didn’t live long enough to become eligible for parole. He died of a heart attack in Cochran State Prison on September 18, 1997.

Film Noir Friday–Sunday Matinee: The Crooked Web [1955]

crooked web 1955

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Today’s feature is THE CROOKED WEB starring Frank Lovejoy, Mari Blanchard, and Richard Denning.

Enjoy the movie!

TCM says:

Former G.I. Stan Fabian runs a drive-in restaurant with his waitress girl friend, Joanie Daniel, who receives an unexpected visit from her brother Frank. Frank asks Joanie for a loan for a “deal” in Chicago, but she refuses. At dinner that evening, Stan reveals to Frank that he wants to marry Joanie, but she has declined, wary of his lack of financial security. Later, when Stan drives Frank back to his hotel, he inquires about his deal and Frank divulges that years earlier during the war, he and partner Ray Torres hid a sizeable amount of gold, but they have been unable to raise the money necessary to return to Germany to retrieve their treasure.

The Mad Professor, Part 2

When LAPD received a call about a rented chain saw which had been returned with what appeared to be pieces of human flesh and flecks of blood in the teeth and motor, they turned the information over to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriffs were investigating the murder of a John Doe whose body parts had been found off the interstate in Santa Clarita and as possibly as far north as Madera County. The victim had yet to be identified but he was thought to have been a young man, likely in his teens, sporting a punk rocker hair cut.

scholar murderOne of the first things that Sheriff’s detectives needed to do was to identify the person who had rented the chain saw. It turned out to be surprisingly easy. The saw had been rented by a Fresno State College professor, Max Bernard Franc, in his own name. Characterized by colleagues as gentle and non-confrontational, Max didn’t seem to be capable of a cross word let alone a grisly dismemberment killing. But the undeniable evidence of the chain saw was sufficient for detectives to book him on suspicion of murder. He was remanded into custody and held without bail.

While efforts were being made to identify the victim, detectives in both Los Angeles and Madera counties searched both of Max’s residences–his house in Fresno and his apartment in West Hollywood. Sergeant Bryan Williams, an L.A. County Sheriff’s investigator, traveled to Fresno to take part in the search. Williams later told reporters that he had found “one of the largest collections of pornographic homosexual films ever seen.” The link between the quiet college professor and the young punk rocker was becoming a cut up doglittle easier to fathom. All indications were that Max had been leading a double life for years.

The Fresno Bee reported that Max had claimed that the chain saw was bloody because he had run over a dog and then used the saw to cut up the carcass. What? Who in the hell does that? According to Officer George Collier of the LAPD, when he first heard Max’s explanation he was skeptical; but when he was asked if he thought it was unusual for someone to report cutting up a dog with a chain saw he replied: “It’s not the normal type of thing a person would do, but Hollywood’s a bizarre place.” When the dead dog story failed to sway the police Max did what many people accused of murder do–he blamed someone else.

franc_photoMax told Sheriff’s investigator Steve Lee that the still unidentified victim had been killed by a male prostitute, Terry Adams, in self-defense. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and allegedly Terry and the victim had argued over a debt. He described Terry as a white male in his 30s, about 5’10”, 160 pounds with shoulder length blond hair. Detectives were just as doubtful about Terry’s existence as they had been about the dead dog. L.A. County Deputy D.A. Sterling Norris said: “At this time we are still of the opinion that there was not a second man, but we’re still investigating.”

Max in high school.  Class of 1947

Max in high school. Class of 1947

While Max sat in jail and attempted to talk his way out of the murder charge, investigators  succeeded in identifying the victim as an 18-year-old wannabe actor from Kansas City, Tracy Leroy Nute. The D.A.’s office was going forward with the case against Max offering “homosexual rage” as the motive and, citing the “depraved nature of the killing” ,they were seeking the death penalty for Max.

Before you dismiss homosexual rage entirely, note that it is defined in the Urban Dictionary as: “A temper tantrum observed in homosexual men who exhibit behavior of a female coupled with the strength of a man. Such deadly pairing is particularly worrisome given that crimes, such as assault and/or murder committed in a gay rage usually reveal a gory and violent confrontation above normal levels (i.e. excessive bruising, multiple gunshot or stabbing wounds.)

It was a nifty prosecution theory that managed to stereotype both women and gay males.

The trial was going to be very interesting.

NEXT TIME: The conclusion of Max’s story.

The Mad Professor, Part 1

On Tuesday, August 25, 1987, the head and torso of a male, probably in his late teens with a punk-rock style haircut, were found by a Madera County rancher. The body parts were discovered off a rural highway about 20 miles north of Fresno. The young man had a gunshot wound to the head and had been dead about two days. From marks on the bones and the tearing of the flesh it it appeared that the killer may have used a chain saw to dismember the body.

On Thursday, August 27, body parts wrapped in a bed sheet were found near the Golden State Freeway at McBean Parkway in Valencia. The mutilations appeared to have been made with a chain saw. Sergeant John Andrews of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said: “The way the remains were hacked, it appears to be the work of the same person.” No driver’s license or any other means of identifying the young man were discovered with the remains. Investigators weren’t yet sure if the body parts belonged to one or more victims.

Sheriff’s investigators started working the case, but there wasn’t much to go on until the LAPD received a phone call regarding a bloody chain saw. Sheriff’s investigators confiscated the saw–and it would lead them to the most unlikely killer imaginable.

* * *

UntitledFifty-year-old Max Bernard Franc was a tenured professor of public administration at the California State University at Fresno. The unmarried Wisconsin native had earned his Ph.D. at New York University. He’d joined the Fresno faculty in 1969. His colleagues knew him as quiet and scholarly, so you can imagine their shock when he was arrested in Hollywood for the murder and dismemberment of the young man whose body parts had been found scattered along highways between Los Angeles and Fresno.

David Provost, professor and former chair of Max’s department described him this way: “He’s a very low-key kind of individual. When I was chairman of the department, he was one who was always seeking compromise when faculty disputes arose he was. . . a very gentle type of individual.”

One of Max’s colleagues, who declined to be named, said: “I saw him about 10 days ago on campus. He had finished his summer school course and was upbeat, friendly, chatty. He looked as positive and as constructive as I had seen him in years. Nothing seemed amiss. None of this fits the psychology of the person I know. . . He’s not the kind to blow up.” Echoing David Provost’s comments he said: “He’s more the kind who tries to avoid a sticky situation.

Max had recently received a grant to study the budgets and staffing of various cities around the state, a study that had put him in touch with several public officials, including Los Angeles County sheriff’s administrators, and he was just about to begin a semester long sabbatical.

If he was the killer, what had made the mild-mannered professor snap? And what was a fairly conservative man doing in the company of a teenage punk-rocker?

NEXT TIME:  Max Franc’s secret life.

Film Noir Friday–Saturday Matinee: Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison [1951]

folsom prison

Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Last week we took a train to Alcatraz–tonight we head for Folsom Prison in the film INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON. The films stars Steve Cochran and David Brian.

TCM says:

In the first half of the twentieth century, at California’s maximum security Folsom Prison, unhealthy conditions and brutal treatment are considered by the cruel, old-school prison warden, Rickey, to be the only way to handle the three-time convicted felons. One Sunday, against the advice of ringleader Chuck Daniels, several prisoners attempt a breakout. Although the riot is quickly suppressed by Rickey, two guards are killed along with several prisoners. Harsh punishments are meted out to those involved, and a Sacramento Press reporter, Jim Frazier, investigates a rumor that one of the instigators of the rebellion was beaten until paralyzed. Because of the prison’s recent problems and changing societal views regarding the treatment of inmates, the prison’s board of directors orders that new blood be infused in the system and sends penologist Mark Benson to serve as captain of the guards.

Shame on You, Conclusion

Spade & Ella Mae

Spade & Ella Mae in happier times

The Cooley’s marriage was unraveling; Spade had filed for a divorce from Ella Mae. Spade then phoned his violinist, Anita Aros, and proposed to her. She thought for sure he was joking so she accepted. Several days later Spade called her again and this time he forced his daughter Melody to tell Anita that she wanted her for a mother.

In the few weeks since Spade had filed for divorce he had continued to torment and abuse his wife both physically and emotionally. He forced her to telephone people in their circle of friends and confess that she was having an affair. Spade even forced her to confess her infidelity to Melody. The fear and degradation Ella Mae endured was horrendous, not to mention the damage Spade was doing to their son and daughter by referring to their mother as a ‘whore’ and ‘slut’. Ella Mae wanted desperately to escape her husband’s abuse but no one could, or would, help her.

On April 3, 1961 Spade visited a business partner, Jarrold Enfield. He said he had written proof of his wife’s philandering and waived a supposed confession around. Enfield thought that he recognized Ella Mae’s handwriting, but he knew that if she had written it the purported confession had been coerced. He said to Spade: ‘Yes, it’s Ella Mae’s handwriting, Spade, but I know how you got it.’ Unconcerned Spade replied, ‘what difference does it make as long as it is true.’

At 4 p.m. Melody phoned her parent’s ranch and asked if she and her brother Donnell could spend the night with a neighbor, Mrs. McWhorter. Spade gave his permission. Melody was relieved–she was terrified of her father and didn’t want to go home.

At 6 p.m. Ella Mae phoned Melody at the McWhorter’s and asked her to come home so she could explain to her ‘what this was all about.’ Presumably she meant the constant violence in the Cooley home. Melody was reluctant to go home at first, but she agreed to do so as long as McWhorter would drop her off and return for her after 20 minutes.

Spade was on the phone to a friend when Melody arrived. She overheard him say, ‘…don’t call the police.’ Melody asked if the police were coming and Spade said they would be there soon. Then he said, ‘Come here, I want you to see your mother.’

spade dramaThey went into the master bedroom but Ella Mae was not there.

Melody noticed bloodstained sheets on the bed and blood spatter on the walls. Spade went into the bathroom and said, ‘Get up, Ella Mae, Melody is here.’ When Ella Mae didn’t move or make a sound, Spade dragged her nude, bloody, body out of the shower by the hair. He banged her head twice on the floor.

He then gave Melody three minutes to get her mother up and moving or he would kill them both. He started the countdown but Melody couldn’t do it. Clutching a rifle her father came back into the room and forced the girl to sit in a chair. He said, ‘All right, Melody, you are going to watch me kill her.’

As the horrified 14-year-old looked on, her father stomped her mother in the abdomen with his boot. He knelt down next to the victim and said, ‘We’ll just see if you’re dead.’ He called her a slut, then touched the nipples of both her breasts with his cigarette. Ella Mae was dead within 20 minutes.

Melody tried to run, but her father grabbed her. He took her into the living room, made her sit on his lap, kissed her passionately and touched her breast. He told her he was going to turn all his love over to her and Donnell, Jr., as their mother had ‘crushed him.’

The phone rang and Spade got up to answer it. While was distracted, Melody saw Mrs. McWhorter approaching the house. She was able to escape.

The Sheriff’s arrived to assess the violent and bloody scene. The body of the deceased told a tale of torture and abuse. Court documents later described the scene in detail: ‘The victim’s body was covered with multiple bruises and abrasions; her left eye was blackened, her nose bruised, her lips bruised and split, there were cracks on the chin, injuries to her neck, shoulder, chest, hip, arms, wrist, legs; there was an abrasion on the right side of the right breast; the nipple was blackened and discolored and partially separated from the breast. Deep bruising of the muscles of the neck, a break in the hyoid bone and a break in the thyroid cartilage in front of the victim’s windpipe indicated that she was strangled. A clump of hair forcibly removed from her head was found near the foot of the bed. There was bloody material in the victim’s vaginal and rectal orifices and splits in both the vaginal and anal-rectal mucous membrane. A broom was found in the bedroom which contained a uniform deposit of mucus substance with some blood extending 5 or 6 inches down the handle. Four fragments of blond bloody hair were embedded in the fibers of the broom handle, and this hair resembled the victims.’

cooley cuffsSpade was arrested for Ella Mae’s murder but the inquest was delayed when he suffered a heart attack. He was transferred from from the jail to a hospital. During his hospitalization his attorney attempted to minimize his client’s role in Ella Mae’s death with statements like, ‘He says he didn’t realize she was hurt so bad. That’s why her stayed with her rubbing her hands in hope that she would respond.’ It beggars belief to think that anyone would buy the story that Spade didn’t realize the severity of his wife’s injuries.

His attorney scrambled to come up with a credible defense–insanity. But the plea went down in flames when four psychiatrists pronounced him sane.The stress brought on another heart attack, which he survived.

Spade continued to insist that Ella Mae hand been unfaithful. And if she was? How could cheating justify the brutality of the attack that took her life–or any of the many previous beatings she had suffered?

cooley beating deathMelody’s testimony at her father’s trial brought on another heart attack. The trial was recessed while Spade recovered. When the trial resumed the defense asserted that Ella Mae had died as the result fall, not a beating. It was ludicrous. Even more ridiculous was Spade’s testimony that he didn’t beat his wife, ‘I did not beat my wife to death, believe me, I did not beat my wife. Without her I am nothing…I worshiped my wife…’

For someone who worshiped his wife, Spade showed no qualms about trashing her memory at every opportunity. He testified that Ella Mae had confessed to an affair with two men in a motel room. According to Spade ‘She said she was going to join them in the 100 member free love cult they were forming.’ Not content to to sully the memory of his dead wife, Spade accused Melody of lying.melody at trial

The jury evidently found Melody to be a more credible witness than Spade. He was found guilty of first degree murder. The judge seemed to believe that Spade was capable of rehabilitation and sentenced him to life in prison. Personally, I think he got way luckier than he deserved.


Spade was on a temporary 72-hour parole in November 1969–looking forward to a full parole in February 1970–when he was invited to perform at a benefit for the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs Association. He had just brought down the house with one of his violin performances and the audience of 2800 gave him a standing ovation. Life was looking good. He thanked the deputies for ‘the chance to be free for a while.’ He was only 59, maybe he could reignite his career, after all he had a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Who knows, he might even marry again. But in a twist of fate he never got the chance. He went backstage to talk to friends and collapsed. He was pronounced dead at Highland Hospital.

Shame On You, Part 2

spade shameSpade Cooley, the self-proclaimed ‘King of Western Swing’, had a series of hits throughout the 1940s and into the late 1950s. In June 1948 he began to host a variety show on KTLA-TV which broadcast from the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom. The show was popular enough (approximately 75% of L.A. viewers tuned in on Saturday nights) to attract A-list guests like Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and Frankie Laine.

spadecooleyKTLAIt isn’t clear when Spade started to physically abuse Ella Mae, but by the late 1940s the abuse was so rooted in their relationship that he didn’t even attempt to hide it from the rest of the world. On a trip to Catalina Island  Spade smacked Ella Mae in front of several guests. He forced her to kneel before them and apologize for doing something that had pissed him off. Why didn’t anyone intervene? It may have been shock–perhaps the witnesses were immobilized–or it may have been that in those days nobody thought it was their place to interfere in another couple’s relationship no matter what they saw.

The Catalina trip was just one instance of Spade’s abuse. Ella Mae once jumped from the car in which she was riding with her husband when he started to choke her. Nearly everyone in their circle of family and friends had witnessed Spade’s abuse of Ella Mae. Their daughter, Melody, had seen her father ‘slap around’ her mother on many occasions and threaten to kill her. A nurse in the Cooley’s employee had to club Spade with a eucalyptus log to stop him from beating Ella Mae.

Like many abusers Spade blamed his brutal behavior on Ella Mae. In the mantra familiar to many domestic thugs he repeated ‘look what you made me do’ until he likely believed it himself. It is possible he wasn’t entirely wrong about Ella’s infidelity. She allegedly confessed to a friend that she’d had an affair with cowboy star Roy Rogers in the early 1950s. But infidelity, even if real, is no excuse for beating a partner. Increased mistrust and escalating domestic violence characterized the Cooley’s marriage for years before it finally ended in 1961.

Early in 1961 Ella Mae was hospitalized; ostensibly for stress. During her stay she confided to her doctor that she was in fear of Spade. She said she’d suffered numerous beatings over the years and was terrified that he would kill her. From her hospital bed she retained a woman attorney to represent her in divorce proceedings. Spade took the news as could be expected. He blew up, and threatened to kill Ella Mae and their children if she dared to leave him.

Spade telephoned the hospital and told a nurse that he was coming to visit his wife. When Ella Mae got the message she locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out until she got an all clear signal from the nurse.

Ella Mae was more frightened that ever. She had every reason to believe Spade’s threats. She put together an exit strategy with her friends Bud Davenport and Luther Jackson. She secretly funneled money to them that they would in turn invest in their own names and subsequently keep in trust for her so she would have some cash once her divorce was final.anita aros

Spade, pretending he knew that she had been having lengthy conversations with Bud and Luther, tricked Ella Mae into confirming it; although she didn’t tell him about the money. Even though he knew Bud and Luther were gay he phoned and threatened both of them with death if they continued to speak with his wife. He was so angry that he turned up at their home and punched Bud on the chin.

On March 21, 1961, before Ella Mae could file her own suit, Spade filed for divorce–ironically charging extreme cruelty. He told reporters: ‘Ella Mae has moved out and I’m heartsick, but there isn’t a chance of a reconciliation.’ He sought custody of the kids, Melody, 13, and Donnell, 11. He then telephoned the violinist in his band, Anita Aros, and proposed marriage to her. She accepted, but thought he was kidding.  He wasn’t.

NEXT TIME:  The Cooley’s marriage ends in violence.