Thursday, April 08, 2021

THRILLER Thursday: The Ordeal Of Dr. Cordell

The Ordeal Of Doctor Cordell

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!

Season: 1, Episode: 24.
Airdate: March 7, 1961

Director: Lazlo Benedek
Writer: Donald S. Sanford
Cast: Robert Vaughn, Kathleen Crowley, Robert Ellenstein, Marlo Thomas.
Music: Morton Stevens
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline
Producer: Maxwell Shane

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Such are the hazards of scientific research. As strange as it may seem, this is not the end but only the beginning of “The Ordeal Of Dr. Cordell”. Are leading players are, Mr. Robert Vaughn, Miss Kathleen Crowley, Mr. Robert Ellenstein, and Mr. Russ Conway. Speaking if chemistry this Thriller is a mixture of one part scientific possibility, one part imaginative melodrama, and two parts pure terror.” (Poof! Karloff disappears from the lab) “Oh dear! Well these are the hazards of science!”

Synopsis: Like a script for THE OUTER LIMITS rejected because it had no monster...

On a college campus research facility...

Scientist Dr. Frank Cordell (Robert Vaughn) is working with chemicals in a safety lab with an airlock, with fellow scientist Dr. Lois Walker (Kathleen Crowley) supervising at the control panels on the other side of the glass. There’s an explosion and fire, and gas fills the safety lab! Dr. Walker wants to vent the lab, but Dr. Cordell says the oxygen will just feed the fire... he needs to get the fire out first. But as he uses the fire extinguisher to spray the flames, the gas seems through his gas mask and... he passes out just as he gets the fire out. Dr. Brauner (Robert Ellenstein) rushes in after hearing the alarm, and they vent the gas... but have to wait until has all been sucked out of the room before they can open the airlock and pull out Dr. Cordell. By that time, he’s dead.

Dr. Brauner does a Pulp Fiction and stabs him in the heart with adrenaline, gives him oxygen, and brings him back from the dead.

Dr. Cordell comes to, says he’s fine, and wants to go back to work. But he’s worried: They’ve spent 2 years trying to find an antidote to the enemy’s latest nerve gas... and by mistake he has just discovered something much worse... something that a gas mask doesn’t provide protection from. Dr. Brauner (the boss) orders Cordell to go home and get some rest. Walker offers to drive him home, and walks him to the door, where they kiss. They aren’t just coworkers, they are lovers. There’s a birdcage on the front porch of Cordell’s house, and the little bird begins ringing it’s little toy bell...

But to Cordell, the sound is magnified and is driving him crazy. Giving him the ultimate migraine headache. He reaches into the cage and grabs the bell, stopping the bird from pecking at it. Though he *was* going to invite Walker in, she thinks it may be better for him to get some sleep. He *was* dead only a couple of hours ago.

After she leaves, the bird starts pecking at the bell again, driving Cordell crazy...

Dr. Cordell wakes up the next morning when his maid Mrs. Heath (Helen Brown) tells him he has a phone call from Dr. Walker. He rubs sleep from his eyes and picks up the phone, and she wants to know if he wants to go to lunch. Lunch? Yes, it’s almost noon. That’s when Mrs. Heath screams from the porch.

Someone has crushed the bird to death. It’s mangled body on the floor of the cage. Mrs. Heath thinks it might be some neighbor kids.

Later, Dr. Cordell and Dr. Walker return from lunch, and when Cordell reaches in his pocket he pulls out... the bird’s little bell. He quickly hides it before Walker can see it.

Cordell becomes focused on recreating that gas again. When Dr. Brauner comes in to see how he’s doing, and Walker mutes the intercom, Cordell becomes paranoid and enraged. Why are they talking behind his back? Walker says Brauner just wanted him to stop in for a physical check up. Cordell sends her home and sticks around the lab...

When a pretty CoEd (yes, that’s Marlo Thomas) looking for the library. Cordell goes ballistic, asking how she got past the security door. Seems that the security door doesn’t close properly and needs to be fixed. Cordell calms down, steps outside to point out the Library Building on campus, and when the CoEd walks away, her bell ear rings ring, driving Cordell crazy. He races after the CoEd and...

Wakes up at home the next morning when the alarm goes off at 8am.
What happened last night?
There’s a single bell ear ring on his night stand, covered in blood.

There’s a police car parked outside the research building. A Detective Boutaric (Russ Conway) questioning Walker and Brauner. A CoEd was *brutally* murdered last night just across from the research building, did Cordell see her? Cordell says no one can get into the lab area due to the security door. So he didn’t see her. Cordell overhears Dr. Brauner unleash a big pile of exposition on Dt. Boutaric about how chemical imbalances in the brain may cause homicidal urges which can not be controlled. Oh, so that’s what’s up with Cordell! When the Detective leaves, Cordell asks Brauner if homicidal urges are caused by chemical unbalance, could they be cured with chemicals? Yes, that’s possible...

Cordell becomes even more obsessed with his lab work, discovering exactly what combination of chemicals caused his current (psycho killer) condition. When Dr. Walker brings Chinese take out to the lab and asks him to break for dinner, Cordell goes ballistic and screams at her. “Science and ego make lousy chemistry!” She breaks up with him and storms out... passing Detective Boutaric, who has just discovered that Maintenance *repaired* the security door because it wasn’t closing properly this morning, because Cordell asked them. So the CoEd *could* have entered the lab. Cordell insists she still did not come into the lab, but the detective is suspicious.

Dr. Brauner tells Cordell he is overworking and gives him a choice: Take a vacation or resign. He suggests that maybe Cordell and Walker might take that a vacation together as a honeymoon... but Cordell doesn’t tell him they’ve broken up. Cordell opts for the vacation.

When he leaves the research building that night and crosses the college campus to his car, he passes a big football game rally... including another CoEd ringing a cowbell. The sound drives him crazy... He follows the CoEd as she leaves and before you can say "Less cowbell!"...

He wakes up in a crappy downtown hotel... the bell the CoEd was ringing on the floor. The news reports another CoEd has been brutally murdered, crushed by someone’s monster’s hands. He calls the front desk: it’s *Wednesday*, how long was he sleeping? Cordell writes a suicide note and prepares to kill himself... then calls Walker at the lab and warns her *not* to continue the experiments. She asks why. “I have to talk to you somewhere alone.” She agrees to meet him at the campus chapel at midnight and leaves.

Meanwhile, Detective Boutaric has found the bloody ear ring in Cordell’s house and knows he’s the killer.

Cordell goes to the deserted chapel at the strike of midnight... which means the bell begins ringing, which drives him crazy! He climbs the stairs to the bell tower. At the top of the tower, he tries to stop the bell, but it’s huge. Walker enters the chapel and hears Cordell screaming and climbs the stairs. When she gets to the top of the stairs, Cordell sees her and attacks! She fights him off, pushing him away... and the bell knocks him out of the bell tower and he SPLATS! On the ground below.

Review: If the bells had turned Cordell into a *physical* monster, this could have been an OUTER LIMITS episode. The story has elements of Jekyll And Hyde and maybe Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and even though this was 3 years before THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn was probably a “get”. He had a bunch of TV roles in his past by this time. But I kind of think he’s slightly wrong for the role: part of Dr. Jekyll is that he’s more contemplative, and that’s the trait this role needs. An actor who really feels terrible that he’s been killing cute CoEds. Vaughn is such a charismatic guy that it covers the emotional side of this character. He does a great job, and is probably more subdued than usual... but he’s still Robert Vaughn. But what the heck, it’s a fun episode.

In addition to Marlo Thomas’ 4th role on film, you may recognize Robert Ellenstein who plays the supervising scientist as the assassin from NORTH BY NORTHWEST who says: “Yes, a joke. We will laugh in the car” when they grab Cary Grant out of that bar at gunpoint a couple of minutes into that film. He was one of those actors who did everything, and you may recognize him from the great original 3:10 TO YUMA or his recurring villain on THE WILD WILD WEST or STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME where he played the Federation Council President.

The production design and sets are great, all of the lab equipment looks real. There’s also some great stock footage of the pre game bonfire party from USC or UCLA that helps sell the big pre game rally scene.

The director, Lazlo Benedict, directed Brando’s THE WILD ONE before becoming a prolific TV director... but I’m not sure he had the visual skillset to handle suspense. The scene where Walker climbs the stairs to her possible death is kind of bland. By this time PSYCHO had played in cinemas with a great primer on how to make climbing stairs filled with tension and suspense. Some of these episodes are really well directed and others are kind of TV bland: with a director coming in and getting the shots on film (this becomes more apparent after next week’s episode which has one amazing shot that would be just as amazing if it had been in a big budget movie). But Lazlo does one amazing thing here: Cordell’s “crazy vision” is a nice twisted image effect done with a lens (there was no digital back then, so everything was practical to some extent). It’s a great way for the audience to experience his insanity... and it always ends in a blackout that is held just long enough to make us wonder what the heck happened during it when Cordell wakes up.

They also do a great job making us imagine the brutality of these murders while showing us nothing. I’m going to give the credit for this to writer Donald Sanford who wrote some of the other creepy episodes and seemed to know how to get maximum impact on a TV budget. The story has some great reveals, like when Dr. Cordell reaches into his pocket for a match to light Dr. Walker's cigarette and comes out with the bird's bell... then has to quickly hide it from her and grab his matches pretending that he didn't just learn who smashes his bird to death.

Hey, was that the bell or belltower set from VERTIGO?

A really good entry in the series, but with just a little more could have been one of the great ones... But that’s okay, because we’re about to get a grouping of great episodes!


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