Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell: Season 1 Episode 24

Originally aired: 3/7/61
Starring Robert Vaughn, Kathleen Crowley, Robert Ellenstein.
Written by Donald S. Sanford.
Directed by Laslo Benedek.

While working in his lab, University scientist Dr. Frank Cordell (Robert Vaughn) accidentally mixes Methylindole with Polonium and, as anyone versed in the two chemicals can attest, experiences a loss of pulse. If this was the only problem the good doctor experienced, this would be a very short episode.

PE: Cordell finds whenever he hears a bell ringing, the whole world sways, he squishes his face in his hands, and becomes a teenage werewolf.

JS: Is that what was going on? I thought he was turning into Dennis Hopper. Interestingly enough, I found myself squishing my head in my hands several times throughout this episode.

PE: I think in some alternate Thriller universe, Gil Thrasher (The Shat) and Carolyn the Assistant (Alice Backes) had a love child before Gil threw himself out of the castle window and Dr. Frank Cordell is the result. I know all the Robert Vaughn fans will come to his defense and remind me that he was gold in Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I'll give you he was solid in Bullitt but here he's just another scenery chewer.

JS: I don't get it. Just a year earlier he was great in The Magnificent Seven. Did you like how he interrogated That Girl when she inadvertently stumbled into his unlocked lab? With all the beakers and gas masks, you can understand how she thought it was the library. I tell you she had it coming.

PE: And to think we did our commentary on "The Fatal Impulse." If only we'd have been a bit more patient. We should have known something more ludicrous was just up over the next grassy knoll.

JS: Unfortunately, this episode lacks the entertaining charm that made "The Fatal Impulse" so watchable. If this were "The Ordeal of No Deal of Dr. Cordell" I'd go with No Deal.

PE: My Thrillah moments- After a co-ed is found viciously murdered (well, we're told her little bell earrings have been ripped off), the investigating detective (Russ Conway) asks an M.D. (an M.D. I repeat) his advice:
"Do you remember those deep scratches on her earlobes? Well, you were right, she was wearing earrings. The killer did tear them off. My men just found them about thirty yards from the scene. What kind of a psycho would ignore her wristwatch and the money in her purse and just take a worthless little thing like this?"
Then, later, the good doctor attends a pep rally and is thrown yet again into a psychotic frenzy by a pretty girl with a bell. First he strangles the cinematographer for the episode (Benjamin H. Kline) and then goes on to murder the young lady.

JS: I think my favorite came during the pre-credit sequence. With Frank unconscious, they have to suck the nasty gas out of the chamber. The other Doctor decides to eyeball it, and jumps in the room despite our being able to see visible vapors (let alone those deadly invisible gasses...).

PE: (SPOILER ALERT) When Cordell tries to warn his assistant, the lovely Dr. Lois Walker (Crowley) about the debilitating effects of the gas they've been experimenting with, she suggests they meet to talk about it in... oh, you guessed, a chapel. Cordell, being the genius that he is, perhaps forgets that it's bells that trigger his nuttiness and face squishing, and chapels tend to have really big bells. These scientific geniuses can be absent-minded, you know. When the bell begins ringing, Frank heads up top to try to silence it. He gets bonged back and forth and this leads, inevitably, to another unconvincing fall from a great height by a Thriller star (which brings this back full circle to Gil Thrasher). "The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell"? What about the ordeal of the A Thriller A Day guys?



  1. Vaughn's troubles in this ep are identical to the Ordeal of Laird Cregar in HANGOVER SQUARE (hearing a particular strange sound makes him homicidal ... that's pretty much the beginning, middle and end of the story). The first time I saw "Ordeal," I was willing to bet it had been written and directed by HANGOVER SQUARE/THRILLER vets Barre Lyndon and John Brahm, respectively -- but I was wrong.

    1. I agree, Tom, regarding the Lyndon-Brahm connection, which occurred to me as well. The episode works well enough for me. I'm not the world's biggest Robert Vaughn fan but he was perfectly cast in what might otherwise have been the Harry Townes role.

      That Vaughn was younger and better looking than Townes helped. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this one and the ending, the final scene, really got to me,--surreal, shocking, so typical of Thriller--it knocked my socks off and made it work. It was horrifying, visually, psychologically and aurally. This is far from my favorite Thriller but the ending is one of the best.

    2. Vaughn is always better with an icy/aloof charachter (see: "Bullitt") but is servicable here. I thought the same re: the Laird Cregar comparison. Bet there were a lot of strangled Salvation Army Santas during the Tree of Lights campaign!

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    4. William Castle's 1972 GHOST STORY episode "Elegy for a Vampire" cast future Barney Miller Hal Linden as a similarly tortured campus professor responsible for his share of coed corpses. Wasn't it Clarence Oddbody who said, "every time a bell rings, a coed becomes an angel."

  2. You beat me to the HANGOVER SQUARE punch, Tom! As for the episode itself, okay, it's a bit forced and certainly contrived (the chapel ending), but the extreme weirdness of those seizure attacks sort of sticks with you. One Karloff seems a tad severe for this flawed but energetic episode, all things considered. BTW, at the risk of sounding like a creep, that's a pre-nose job THAT GIRL who gets killed by Cordell (rhymes with bell). Young Marlo would pretty herself up considerably over the next few years.

  3. I thought that Robert Vaughan's performance was restrained and very effective--but those bell-ringing scenes would have tested even the most distinguished thespian; ultimately, it's the director's responsibility to determine how an actor plays something extreme like that.
    But I think Vaughan's performance is one of the few bright spots in this episode.

    I would have thought these guys could have come up with something a little less cheese-ridden for the bell sequences: the out-of-focus camera, the distorted lens, the pre- '66 Batman tilt-a-whirl effect, the space-age sounds (probably lifted from the old Audio Fidelity Sound Effects LPS), etc. But Vaughan still manages to carry this show very convincingly and naturally.

    I remember seeing this episode on its original '61 summer rerun and being upset for days by the emotional performance of Helen Brown as the distraught landlady who discovers her dead parakeet; well-acted scene.

    I might sound like a creep, too...but...I'll say it anyway: That Girl sure had her old man's schnozz! (I think it's fair to comment on this notable feature since she herself decided that it was "undesirable" and needed to be bopped). Seeing her in this show is definitely one of those "wait a minute---who IS that?" moments.

    I thought the show's finale was very dramatic: well-staged and lit, though I couldn't understand why the church bell kept ringing continuously; I thought those bells only ring once for every hour---so, at most the thing would have sounded 9 or 10 times, then stopped. Dramatic/mechanical license, I guess.

    This was Morton Stevens' first 'Thriller" score, and it was pretty unremarkable. Unlike Goldsmith, who often "re-invented" the orchestra for each episode and highlighted a specific instrument or group of instruments, Stevens' score is pretty standard orchestral writing: strings, brass, a prominent solo flute, piano, vibraphone, etc; nothing particularly distinctive, but we do hear a couple of those quick strokes across the piano strings-- a sound which Stevens would put to better use in later scores.


  4. Robert Vaughn, by the way, was (is?) one of those actors who, in a scene where he's supposed to choke someone, chokes 'em; ORDEAL's Kathleen Crowley told me he choked her so hard in the finale that even the next morning, the marks on her neck were so red, the makeup man had trouble covering them up. Personality-wise, she compared him to (oh-oh) Arthur Franz -- a real creep.

    Why do I get the feeling that if Robert Vaughn had to choke Don Megowan or Leo Gordon or somebody like that, suddenly he'd start minding his manners?

  5. Those were piano strings? I thought it was my junior high school music teacher with her auto harp.

    Katherine Crowley was the only thing separating this episode from the worst of the lot.

  6. Wow... more lame crime dramas. I can't say I was ever a fan of Robert Vaughan. Whenever I see him on the screen, I think "Robert Vaughan" and never the character he is trying to convince the audience he is. I Vaughan tries too hard. His very distinct facial features is also a distraction to me from putting him in character.

    The bell sequences were goofy. Vaughan looked like Charlie Sheen on a bender. The bell tower ending was fairly effective. It was nicely lit and a decent climax to an otherwise sub-par THRILLER.

    THE ORDEAL OF DR. CORDELL gets "1 Karloff".

    1. I agree re Robert Vaughn's distinctive look. He always seems to be playing the same character, or the same sort. Some actors can do that and still be credible. Charles Bickford comes to mind; and, of course, a certain Mr. Bogart. I find Jimmy Stewart almost always believable. He doesn't change his voice or mannerisms much (ever?), yet he sells his scenes, whether he's playing a lawyer or a commercial photographer.

  7. I thought you guys were too hard on this one. At least it had narrative drive. I didn't feel like they were filling time like I do with so many of these, including the much lauded "Well of Doom" (and its interminable scene when the main guy escapes from the cell and kind of wanders around for a few minutes). I could overlook the weird video effects when Robert Vaughn, who by the way I think is one of the better actors I've seen in these so far, went into one of his spells because it was the times and they were on a budget. I do admit it was a groaner when they said "meet me at the chapel" because you knew what was coming, but other than that I didn't think this was so bad.

  8. Did anyone notice the strong resemblance of the "mega-pan" effect heralding Robert Vaughn's preictal states in this episode to the recurring "flash" shots used to span scenes in the Man From U.N.C.L.E. series (in which the camera panned in a rapid multicolor blur with musical accompaniment). I fully expected a conference with Mr. Waverly and Mr. Kuryakin to ensue when the lights came up again.

    I enjoyed this episode at least one & a half Karloffs. Loved the gradual ratcheting up of the pesky tintinnabulation from the parakeet's diminutive bell to Marlo's tastefully understated earrings to the pep rally girl's hand bell [no doubt on loan from the university bell choir -- one can really whip up the crowd into a "Beat State" frenzy with one of those babies] to the ultimate institutional-size chapel bell of doom. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

  9. I was slightly amused, but overall bored from watching The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell. It was definitely one of the lesser episodes to date.

    I know of Robert Vaughn, but never watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E., so no critic baggage for me on Bobby's bell ringing scenery chewing. I mostly chuckled when the bell rang and Mr. Vaughn looked as if the effects of a few doses of brown acid tabs were taking hold of him. It's always a treat for me to watch any video from the 50s and early 60s that portrays a person in the throes of a mind alteration experience. Ever since The Beatles unleashed Tomorrow Never Knows on the public way back in 66, 99% of the times, these scenes will be doused in what have become acid/pot fried psychedelic audio and visual cliches. Lucky for us viewers, we were still half a decade off, so we got clumsy, but charming, acting, visuals and sound effects from the Thriller team.

    The way science and pyschology were portrayed, especially in a university seeting, was quite dopey and five decades later it looks really silly.

    The bell tower climax was the writer's path of least resistance. Hell (rhymes with bell), even I could've probably come up with something more creative than that ending.

    Ah well, I ring the bell for one and a half Karloff's...

  10. This is one of the few episodes I remember watching during the show's original run, though I remembered a lot of plot details wrong. Some of my fondness derives from Robert Vaughan and Kathleen Crowley, whose early love scenes are very nicely played. And part came from misremembering the ending. I thought he threw himself off the bell tower rather than kill her, but clearly it's a combination of her fighting back and a convenient accident. The part that dated most for me was the staging of his breakdowns when other people are around. They're always looking way from him when he loses it, and with Marlo Thomas, it starts in a shot of the two of them, before the effects take over, and times out like a comedy scene. It could be an SCTV takeoff of the show.

    Thomas not only made this pre-nose job but before chain smoking had started coloring her voice. That sweet throaty voice that was so endearing to some in "That Girl" hadn't yet kicked in. I didn't recognize her, and had to reverse the feed to re-watch the scene after seeing her name in the credits.

    Vaughan and Crowley's doctor boss is Robert Ellenstein, who was much more memorable as one of James Mason's henchmen in "North by Northwest." His character is killed when the crop-dusting plane crashes, but you wouldn't know without reading the script and seeing the earliest notes. Hitchcock was going to show him in the plane, but that was lost when the director decided, quite wisely, to shoot the film entirely from Cary Grant's perspective.

  11. Ugh. Zero Karloffs for me: Leaden direction from Laszlo Benedek and a schizoid performance (from comatose to psychedelic) from Vaughn. I noted that Sanford got sole writing credit this. Since most Thrillers were adaptations from literary sources, I wonder if he needed to crank this one out fill a time slot? Hence, we get a recycled Hangover Square without the original's brilliant ending (including its incomparable musical contribution from Bernard Herrmann); and in its place a ridiculous, ding-dong, "I saw that coming in the first reel" ending.

  12. Okay, not a great show, but so very few of them have been. I live in hope, although with a 50 year old program watched from a 21st century perspective I now doubt even the "classic" episodes will raise more than a mild frisson. Still one hopes...
    Instead enjoying the fun seeing so many actors who would later gain fame in other shows that I do remember from childhood. I had no idea that was Marlo Thomas and I do remember reruns of That Girl as a kid.
    One bit I enjoyed was the girlfriend and cop saying "what he did to that girl!" until they spoiled it with the headline that the murderer was a strangler. Bad, yes, but better to leave "what he did" to the infinitely more imaginative and perverse minds of the viewing public (even 50 years ago).
    Overall still better than quite a few of these crime thrillers - like so many, ending far to abrupt but a good ending nonetheless. One and a half.

    1. I agree-experiments courtesy DOD. Serling's very first TWZ episode--breaking point in isolation. Let's not dwell on current affairs lest we see a drone in our back yard! Great stuff these days above and beyond Serling's TWZ, amigos? Or Hitchcocks's the drone birds?

  13. Early in the episode, I thought that perhaps Vaughan and Crowley's boss (or their DoD customer) was going to end up as the villain of the piece, but I guess we were a dozen years away from such (post-Watergate) cynicism.

    What's with that shot of the fire-alarm-like AUTOMATIC CONTROL FOR TOWER BELL - DO NOT TOUCH switch (right before Vaughn goes up the stairs of the bell tower) and then the subsequent story never comes back to utilize that in the denouement? A bit of mis-direction, or another case of television sloppiness?

    Well at least Will Ferrell wasn't around (born) yet to ring his Blue Oyster Cult cowbell. Small victories!

    I also liken this episode to Outer Limit's "Expanding Human", which, in comparison, actually looks better . . . and there surely aren't many OL fans who will pay such a compliment to "Expanding Human").

  14. I just watched The Ordeal Of Dr. Cordell again, or most of it anyway, and the automatic bell tower switch ought to have been a tipoff for the young scientist as well as the woman who comes to meet him.

    As she hears the near deafening bells tolling and Cordell screaming in agony she might,--just might--have quickened her pace (or thought process) as to what to do about the professor in meltdown and the bells that are driving him crazy.

    She perhaps might have a.) considered turning the automatic bell switch to off, or at least looked at it; or b) raced up the stairs to help her poor suffering colleague, fully aware of the danger, also prepared to deal with that danger, but I swear,--no exaggeration--she strolls up the flight of stairs at a leisurely pace. By the time she reaches the top the doctor is beyond help.

    For an episode about smart people, it has these smart folk acting awfully dumb at times.