Boris Karloff’s Thriller: The Ordeal of Dr Cordell: “I know that science and ego make lousy chemistry”

Boris Karloff’s Thriller The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell Episode release date: March 7, 1961

Directed by Lazlo Benedek, Written by Donald S. Sanford and music scored by Morton Stevens. Starring Robert Vaughn as Dr. Frank Cordell and Kathleen Crowley as Dr. Lois Walker.

There are obvious elements of  Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with more of a neo-realism that displaces the Gothic romanticist nature of the story of dualities of the mind/soul connection transplanting it in a modern setting, making it almost hyper eerier. This episode is also one of the few in the series that is an integration of post-world War II science-fiction mystery with the reoccurring themes of crime drama and Gothic horror that most of the other episodes pivoted on in this timeless hybrid television show. Not only are there traces of Neo-Noir realism of the 60s, but it also flirted with good science vs bad science. I find a correlation with the original novella published by Stevenson in the late 1800s.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the original title of a novella written by author Robert Louis Stevenson that was first published in London on Jan  5th, 1886. The work is commonly known today as simply Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Dr Henry Jekyll has unleashed a bestial alter ego Edward Hyde, a violent misanthrope. A fracturing of the self, into two clashing and opposing natures. It is the ultimate parable of good vs evil where 2 vastly different personalities within the same person battle over their moral character and the question of right and wrong.




The invasion of the darker sides of the id and human nature infiltrating the everyday human’s mind. The id is virtually our innate instinctive impulses, drives our motivations, and where our primary thought processes become manifest. The term was first used by Freud in the 1920s. We saw Walter Pidgeon’s Dr Morbius fall victim to his own id in Fred M. Wilcox’s sci-fi masterpiece Forbidden Planet (1956) a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Or in a more contemporary venue consider Michael C. Hall’s Dexter and his infamous Dark Passenger.

The Ordeal of Dr Cordell is also a story using a very common theme of the late 50s early 60s Neo-Realism trend, about growing paranoia of society becoming aggressively violent.

The episode can also be viewed as a hybrid noir /chamber drama like that of The Thing From Another World (1951) as a lot of the scenes involving science good vs evil remains within the constructs of the laboratory and the gas chamber booth. There are tinges of patriotism vs communism. Anxiety over chemical and nuclear warfare is layered into the plot as Cordell inadvertently discovers by trying to formulate an anti-war weapon/ antidote a more sinister device because it’s more internal and more personal. The episode could be lens as a statement against war, violence, and fear of letting morality slip away out of control giving into the darker sides of human nature, in particular the dangers of people who dabble in scientific research under the guise of the betterment of mankind only to unleash something more profoundly destructive.

The episode contains some extraordinarily dissonant music, utilizing a range of instruments from what I could swear is Gil Melle’s signature violin work at times Mephistophelean and Baroque in tone. I cannot find any reference to Melle having worked on any projects with Mort Stevens, although the 2 were emerging on the film and tv score scene at the same time. Perhaps he did the studio session and is just uncredited with the performance. If anyone knows, I would love to hear about it, as I am a huge Gil Melle fan as well as Mort Stevens. What’s missing in terms of its sound is only the salient reverberation of his 70s style electric violin sound, which he used in let’s say Kolchak The Night Stalker and Night Gallery series or Michael Winner’s adaptation of Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel (1977) Which was a great read. Starring Christina Raines and Burgess Meredith as a jaunty little devil.

At the most deranged moments in the delirium sequences, we hear strident waves on a zither harp, an almost ancient-sounding instrument of Asian origins with its deconstructed flashes of metallic tonality. Mort Stevens’s score also offers at the segment changes, an Afro-Carribean-Brazilian Jazz theme that was big in the 60s Go-Go clubs, and Thrillers frequently used as a reoccurring motif in other episodes. Particularly the crime drama-based plots.

Inside his air-tight chamber/booth Dr. Frank Cordell, dons a gas mask while his associate and girlfriend Dr. Lois Walker takes notes and monitors the controls and calculations. Kathleen Crowley throughout the episode radiates the sensuality of the Hitchockian Blonde.


Something of particular note for me is the character of Lois Walker, who is every bit Cordell’s contemporary, his equal. She represents a very strong independent female who while although very obviously in love with Frank Cordell, is not sublimated by him or his work. Thriller, I find has a streak of using strong female characters in it’s stories, which is pretty uncommon for its time. I think of Elizabeth Montgomery’s feisty Rosalynn in Masquerade or Pippa Scott’s Marcia Hunter in Parasite Mansion.

Cordell says “Specific gravity 3.62 it looks good if it remains stable we might have something.” He’s experimenting with gases. Dr Cordell is a chemist working on his experiment, a scientist at the University trying desperately to find an antidote to combat nerve gas. Cordell works directly under Robert Ellenstein as Dr Brauner, who are apparently both contracted by Washington for this purpose.

While testing a combination of gases, Cordell inadvertently opens up Pandora’s Box, when he mixes liquid gases in glass vials and suddenly creates a combustable reaction, in one of the flasks which begins to bubble over bursting the glass container, causing the flames. Cordell extinguishes the fire. Lois calls out to Frank. The fumes seem to penetrate his mask. But that is a question for the story. If the mask did function properly and so not permitting any gases to penetrate, what triggers the ensuing black outs and homicidal rages?

Dr. Cordell manages to put the fire out but winds up passing out as he is consumed by the gases in the chamber.Dr. Brauner runs into the lab and puts on the exhaust. Lois tells him to wait until all the gas is exhausted before they enter. Brauner takes Cordell’s pulse, “no pulse.”

This is the opening sequence. Now Boris into the scene, actually in the environment of the lab. This is his ritual at the beginning of each show, to tell the moral of tonight’s story. To be the keeper of the fable who passes on the wisdom and warns of its impending chills and terrors. As he steps into the laboratory there is a small screen box up to the left where we still see Cordell sweaty and passed out on the floor. Boris looks over toward it as if he could see the man lying there. And so he begins to unveil for us his sagely Karloff proclamation.

“Such are the hazards of scientific research…and strange as it may seem this is not the end but only the beginning of The Ordeal of Dr Cordell, our leading players are Mr.Robert Vaughn, Miss Kathleen Crowley, Mr Robert Ellenstein and Mr Russ Conway. Speaking of chemistry, this Thriller is a mixture of one part scientific possibility, one part imaginative melodrama, and two parts pure terror” He smiles as he adds vials of liquid to the concoction of potions in the flask. A burst then a cloud of smoke and Boris has disappeared into thin air, through the vapor. We hear his voice off-screen ” Oh dear, well these are the hazards of science.”

Then the iconic theme music begins set against the asymmetrical graphics, a white fractured web on black, the iconic Thriller motif.

It’s a cautionary tale, a hybrid of science fiction/science research for military purposes in terms of patriotism and finding the ultimate anti-weapon against our impending enemies. And as I mentioned earlier it’s also a hybrid Melo Noir/ Chamber drama. Something as innocuous as an ordinary bell can manifest such a horrific transformation. Much of The Ordeal is translated, conveyed through Cordell’s head gripped by hands, the distorted, misshapen face, and twisted image that reoccurs over and over in the delirium sequences. Finally, it becomes Man vs Machine, or more aptly put Dr. Cordell against The Bell.

Leaning over Cordell Dr Brauner and Lois give him an injection of adrenalin and oxygen as he awakens. The first thing he asks her is, “Your notes” she says “They’re safe.” This is a dedicated driven man. As the doctor takes his stethoscope off, Lois looks worried, Brauner says “Ten minutes ago he had no discernible heartbeat and now it’s normal” Cordell tells them that other than a splitting headache he feels alright.

They help him to his feet. still gasping for air,  he says “You better phone Washington Doctor and tell them to run the rest of these tests, I guess we have a new problem to solve now. This mask is supposed to protect against any known gas and it failed me completely” he looks back toward the chamber. Vaughn’s acting is usually smooth and monotone elegance. There is no inflection to his voice, it often comes across as cold or unemotional.

Brauner asks him if he’s sure the mask isn’t working correctly. Lois tells him “We both checked it before he went in the cage, it’s routine.”Brauner replies, “Then is must be defective if it isn’t you know what you’re suggesting?” Cordell answers ” I’m not suggesting, I’m telling you.”

“Some new kind of gas was generated by the fire, having spent 2 years trying to find an antidote for nerve gas and suddenly we stumble onto a new more frightening problem, a gas which against our best equipment is completely useless”

Brauner handles the mask a little skeptical, “a new gas” but Cordell reminds him that he was examined 2 months ago and wasn’t a candidate for heart palpitations nor a blackout. ” Let’s face it doctor …what we can discover by accident others too or possibly already have discovered.” Dr. Brauner concedes that Cordell has stumbled onto something “tentatively unique” he’ll send the mask to Washington to have it examined for defects.

Then he asks Cordell if he has an idea what combination of chemicals occurred during the fire, he says yes but it would take weeks possibly months to figure out all the possibilities.

Frank Cordell starts to stumble on his feet a little ” I guess I bounced a little more than I thought I did” Brauner tells Lois to take him home so he can rest, so Lois drives Frank home.

It’s interesting how Lois is characterized as a strong female figure in a perceived man’s milieu. She isn’t subservient to him. She takes on the air and stance of control. Although she kids him about his bachelor digs, she is the one driving him home. He is the one she referred to at the lab as being “fragile” and the way she takes care of him is from a place of control and power not adoringly, domesticated nor even motherly or emasculating. Also, she seems to be the more aggressive in terms of romantic advances. Cordell is the one who is more focused on his work, less primal charged at first before the black outs, whereas Lois seems to have the sexual drive that has been put on hold by Cordell’s obsessive work ethic.

He’s still very shaken and weak. “Miss Walker”, he says ironically as the roles are switched while the saying goodnight ritual at the door scene unfolds. He tells her that it’s been lovely but he must go in. She is the one who urges, “Oh couldn’t I come in for a drink, say a cup of coffee?” This is usually the line that the male escorting the woman home would ask as a ploy to spend the night. Her tone flaunts the sexual aspects of desire in their relationship, as she is acting the part of the pursuer, he dons the demure tone, “no no no” he acts like it wouldn’t be appropriate.

She adds a bit after, “or something” The innuendo blatantly now is referring to them having sex. Now this is pretty racy since they are not married. And she is the one initiating the gesture. He plays along with the role reversal then he grabs her, and kisses her first saying “Well I hardly know you Miss Walker” It’s a sustained passionate embrace, we can hear her breathing hard as her sexual desire has been triggered almost to the point of climax. She apologizes for desiring him at a time when he is weak. “I’ve been acting like a selfish little heel.”

She acknowledges that she wants him, but it’s not in a way that appears as if she is subverting her needs, self-control or independence. It’s merely that she isn’t putting his current state of health first.

It lacks a self-conscious moral judgment. Cordell says he’d be disappointed if she didn’t want to be with him. She tells him that’s all she wanted to hear. Pretty ahead of its time, this is a very gender-neutral, adult relationship without the emerging yet ambiguous power struggles in 60s films as to who acts like a man and who acts like a woman.

As they say goodnight. The little bird Billy that lives in the cage out on the porch at the boarding house where Cordell lives starts playing with its bell. The ringing seems to set off a cerebral convulsive mania, like a vivid migraine. We experience his auditory and visual disturbances.  He grabs his head. We hear the whirring that is vibrating inside Cordell’s head as he grips his temples and his facial muscles contort in pain.

Lois him in discomfort as this happen. The screen blurs for us so that we can experience the audio/visual blurring as he does. The screen distorts, and the sound blares like an alien siren, swelling, gongs reverberating, He holds his hands over his ears as if to drown out the din of the percussive brass or metallic storm.
He runs to the cage and grabs the bell in his fist. The screen slams into quietude. So peaceful all we can hear are the night crickets.

He breaths. The bell has triggered this delirium seizure. Lois asks what happened, “I don’t know… suddenly the sound of that little bell nearly drove me out of my mind, my heart began to pound and every sound was horribly amplified.” It’s almost like the effect that even the slightest sound caused in Poe’s Roderick Usher.

Lois tells him that he’s still a little shaky from the accident at the lab, but she looks a little worried and tells him to get some rest until she phones in the morning.

He goes inside, but as he starts to get undressed we hear the bell from the birdcage again. The same delirium hits him. He holds his fists to his temples, we hear the din of the brass, the sonic sirens as the screen becomes a centrifuge. Spinning, becoming black, gray, and white swirls, that blur together on screen for quite a while. We are experiencing the ordeal with Cordell.

The screen goes black and we are left with music that sounds like wavelengths of the infinite darkness of the outer regions of space, ramifying the last scene deep into our consciousness now.


Fade in, the landlady Mrs Heath is knocking on his door telling him that there is a phone call for him. The knocking becomes more pronounced as he awakens from his deep sleep. She finally becomes frantic calling “Dr Cordell didn’t you hear your phone Miss Walker’s been trying to reach you.” He thanks her and starts to get out of bed.

He calls Lois back.”I was dead to the world,” she asks how he’s feeling, and he says fine in fact wonderful. She wants him to take her to brunch. He can’t believe that it’s noon, he has slept for hours. “Don’t bother with Mrs. Heath’s orange juice and lumpy oatmeal, you’re buying me an expensive brunch downtown.” He acts surprised by the invitation for lunch. She tells him “It’s nearly noon slugger.”

He hangs up the phone as we hear Mrs Heath screaming, the violins start playing the Mephistophelean, Baroque staccato notes.

Mrs. Heath is devastated to find her little bird Billy has been killed in his cage. Cordell asks what has happened and then looks inside at the bird,  “Good lord who would do such a thing like that to a helpless little bird?” She says “Those fiends, those vicious fiends.” She cries so despondently, “They killed little Billy just to get even”

Cordell’s face turns earnestly inquisitive, “get even?” she tells him “because I reported them to the juvenile authorities….roaming the streets after curfew.”

There is an additional strain of hinting at the backlash of youth at authority and acting as counter participants in Americanized morality, with the invoking of the rebellious teenagers who were starting to become capable of disruptive behavior. Exhibiting anti-establishment revolt toward society’s constructed rules.Acting out. Not fitting in with the quiet typical American suburban life. “Neighbor kids.” She cries more now. The question of morality is brought up again, by framing this scene using the neighborhood kids being destructive and downright, violent and lethal as a reaction to her insisting on them behaving properly.

Cordell offers to bury Billy, but she wants to do it. “I’ll put him where the cats won’t find him he was always so afraid of cats.”  Ironically, it’s not always the predator that you’d expect lurking in the shadows that will hurt you.

Crossfade to Cordell and Lois back in the lab. As an example of his provincial and rigid code of following procedure, an old-fashioned, driven man of science who doesn’t deviate from his methodology, he speaks about the brunch they just had.

“This brunch business, you know it’s a scandalous deterioration of good staunch orthodox habits, this combining breakfast with lunch.”Here again, we are hearing about the subverting of the presumed normal codes of behavior.

Lois is still delighted, she tells him that he’s almost fun to be with in contrast with the ultra-serious man. He tells her that he “feels positively stimulated” even against all the work they face. Something has been unleashed in him, that has allowed the primal essence in him to become released, he no longer has any resistance to this inner force. To refer to it as “stimulated.” This is the first sign of passion he has shown.

As he reaches into his pocket for a cigarette lighter, he discovers the little bell that was in Billy’s cage. She asks him for a match, so he quickly hides the bell back in his pocket again. As the scene fades, we hear Timpani. “We’ve got work to do.” His mood has changed drastically. He is now irritable and in vast contrast to who he was just moments earlier when he felt positively stimulated. He understands what is happening to himself, but does not share this with either colleague yet, in particular the woman who loves him and sees the changes.

Now he’s back in the chamber with the gas mask on. Doctor Brauner walks in, and asks for any progress, as she says no she shuts the intercom off so Cordell can’t hear them talking. She says “3 weeks trying to recreate that gas and all I’ve got is circles under my eyes.” She says “he’s overworking, like it’s a compulsion, it’s almost frightening” Doctor Brauner suggests taking another look at him. He tells Lois to have him come around tomorrow for a check-up.

Cordell buzzes from the chamber, “Lois in the future please don’t shut off the intercom.” She tells him that she didn’t want Dr. Brauner and her chit-chat to bother him. He comes back at her “It bothers me a great deal more to know that you’re talking about me behind my back” She tells him it wasn’t anything sinister he just stopped in to see how he was feeling. That’s when she works on the idea of going to see him for a check-up. He tells her “I’m in perfect health.” “You’re not an MD doctor so stop diagnosing yourself.” He’s pouring liquids from vial to vial inside the chamber, while still wearing the gas mask. It gives the scene an ominous industrial, militarized atmosphere. Very stark and chilling in its modern technological environment of tubes and flasks and dials. His gas mask makes him appear like a scientific ghoul, toiling in his industrialized cage filled with apparatus.

Once she mentions Dr. Brauner, A glass vial slips out of his gloved hands and breaks into pieces on the floor. Lois asserts herself “Alright Frank that’s enough for tonight, come out of there now” He looks at the flask filled with bubbling dark liquid for a moment that smashes it on the ground in a fit of pique. Disgusted he comes out,  “That was a stupid thing to do”… “It seems all I keep doing these days is apologizing,” She tells him it’s a typical sign of fatigue, and says  “Well at least you’re not ignoring me.”

She goes to get her coat expecting him to come along, but he sits down to continue taking notes, there’s still something wrong with the procedure.

After a few moments, a really young Marlo Thomas as a new coed Susan Baker at the college walks into the lab. She’s new on the campus and looking for the library. He’s furious with her “How did you get through that door?” It shouldn’t have been open. He shows her the sign that says Positively no admittance. She saw a light. It’s always locked, but tonight it wasn’t working. He lightens up once he realizes that it’s not working.

He says “I’m sorry Miss Baker” as he goes to point her to the library, she starts to walk and sets the tiny bells of her earrings off tinkling. Behind her back, Cordell grabs his temples with both hands pushing in. We hear the wavering din again. As we know another episode of blackout/ derangement is about to occur. The screen warbles again. She turns to face him, and the jingling stops. She catches him rubbing his face. Outside, he points to the library. She starts to walk and the bells of earrings set him off again. In another on-screen delirium sequence, we see him stalking, her grabbing his head screaming “Stop It.”  She screams as the centrifuge effect swirls on the screen before it goes to total blackness.


The next morning his alarm clock is buzzing at 8 am. He wakes up in his bed, looks around his room, and then grabs a cigarette, as he goes to get the lighter, he sees the bell earring on his side table. The flutes trill. He realizes he has most likely killed again, or at least has had another violent blackout episode, winding up with the girl’s earring as evidence of that fact.

He drives to the Chemistry building on campus. He notices a police car outside. He looks up at the door hinges that weren’t working last night. We hear Lois say ” I am positive it’s the same girl I saw leaving last night., headed in the general direction of the building. Cordell walks in.

“Lt Boutaric Homicide Division.” Dr. Brauner introduces them. “Did you hear about the murder?, a coed named Susan Baker.” “What time did you leave last night?”, Cordell says about an hour after Dr Walker. He also says yes he heard it on the radio.

“As near as we’ve been able to tell, the last person who saw Miss Baker alive was your associate” Again he asks “She was headed for this building, did you see her Dr Cordell?” Dr. Brauner looks worried. Cordell hesitates saying “Oh no, I don’t think so” Lt. tells him ” She might have wandered into your lab.” Dr Brauner cuts in, “Oh no that’s impossible this corridor has a double lock, we three have the only keys” Lois agrees but Lt. Boutaric insists. “You haven’t answered my question Dr Cordell.” “No, I didn’t see her, where did you find her?”

“Just across the way in a shrubbery” Lois adds, “poor thing, what he did to her” All the time we are focused on Cordell’s face. He is taking it in. He finally speaks aiming his question at Lois,  “You saw her?”Lt Boutaric says “I asked Miss Walker to identify the girl” The Lt. leaves, and Dr Brauner says goodbye to him. Lois says, “What a horrible thing to have happen.”

Now Cordell submits to the examination by Dr. Brauner quite easily to distract from what just transpired with the police Lt.

After the exam he gets dressed and asks Brauner, “How long do I have to settle my temporal affairs” He just tells him to get dressed,  holding his clipboard. The nurse folds up the blood pressure cuff.

Suddenly Lt Boutaric knocks on the door, “Excuse me, doctor.” “Oh come in Lt.” Cordell is in the next room, getting dressed and listening in.
“Before I leave I’d like to get your opinion on something that’s bothering me” (we hear this first through Cordell’s p.o.v. ”

“Oh what’s that Lt?” He asks Brauner, “do you remember those deep scratches on her ear lobes…well you were right she was wearing earrings…and the killer did tear them off.” Again we see Cordell’s face. We watch him as he hears a faint accounting of what he now realizes he has done.

“My men just found one about 30 yards from the scene, apparently the killer dropped it.” He hands it to Dr. Brauner to look at. Then he asks Dr. Brauner a specific question.

“What kind of a psycho would ignore her wristwatch and the money in her purse and just take a little worthless thing like this?”
Still, we are watching Cordell as the reactive character, who is listening to Brauner unsuspectingly profile him.

“Well, that’s very difficult to say Lt. possibly a TROPHY of the kill.” Here the bell is used as fetish, as well as the earrings. Horror and Noir often use the mechanism of the fetish item. This reestablishes this episode as a hybrid Neo-Melo Noir experience.

“Yes but why not her scarf or something more personal?” essentially suggesting a sexual item like her bra or panties. “Why earrings?”

“Who knows perhaps it has a hidden psychological meaning for the killer” Again we’re focusing on Cordell’s expression.
“A symbol which released a deeply seated homicidal urge.”

Cordell turns away as he is learning about himself through the door. “What do you mean?” “Well suppose that in his infancy, he had been terrorized by an older child, a sibling, terrorized with a toy bell.”

Now Cordell comes out from the back drawing back the curtains. That’s symbolic in itself. He is now in the room as Dr. Brauner continues his theory. “Such a repressed nightmare could lie dormant for years and then suddenly explode” Which it did literally and figuratively, in the chamber with the gases that were ignited.

“In seemingly senseless violence.” We are still fixed on Cordell’s expression as he puts his jacket on. Brauner continues, “It’s all a matter of chemistry, brain chemistry” He hands back the little bell earring to the Lt. “Well how so doctor?”Brauner says “Human behavior is a direct result of the chemical balance of the cerebral cortex. That portion of the brain which controls our higher mental functions, particularly moral judgments the ability to choose between right and wrong.”

“You mean a sudden change in brain chemistry could turn a normal man into a killer?” the Lt. asks.

Here we are at the question of nature vs nurture. Where and how does the morality vein run through our consciousness? Is it an innate, unconscious primer and can something organic trigger the breakdown of the ability to control our primal urges? Are we truly in control? Are we all born inherently good, do we all have dueling and dual identities?

Dr Brauner says “Yes exactly.” Now Cordell interjects, straightening his tie, as composed as he can appear.

“Well suppose your theory was correct, do you mean you could restore the moral balance of a man by restoring the chemical balance of his brain?” Brauner only conjectures “Possibly.”  It’s an answer that can’t be given. What causes certain people to kill? To act on their violent urges.

” If one only knew what elements were involved,” Cordell asks, “otherwise?” “Otherwise, he must go on killing,” Brauner says this as a foreshadowing of what lies ahead for Cordell. And the segment ends.

Cordell is back in the lab. Lois comes in with food. He ignores her, then snaps at her that he’s trying to concentrate.

He comes out of the chamber and becomes enraged. He grabs her hand aggressively. “Is that all you can think about is food… and listen you don’t have to put up with it.” She cries out “Frank” “I mean it!, you can quit any time you like ” Instead of backing down, she tells him that she knows he’s bushed but not to say anymore.

He shouts at her, “I haven’t stuck my head out of that cage for 2 weeks…and I’m no closer to the answer than I ever was…And do you think you’re helping me with these constant interruptions?….this is supposed to be a laboratory we’re here to work we have a job to do.”

She holds her ground with him.” You’re darn right, a man-sized job and there’s no room for adolescents who can’t stand failure.”

She’s very provocative and strong in her dominion as a woman. She never allows his identity, his gaze to be demeaning. She tells him that she was even proud to share in his work and that she even felt a “little corny twinge of patriotism when I went without food and worked into the wee hours, but this past week Frank I come to realize that you’re not killing yourself for the same reason that I am.”

Now it has become a personal quest for him to vanquish this inner demon/monster that has emerged out of the vaporous gases that he was playing with. Either possibly creating an altered brain chemistry in which manifestations triggered repressed adolescent rage. Was it the experiment itself being the catalyst, or was it just the shock, like a near-death experience causing newfound psychic aptitude in people? Did he merely tap into what was already his brain chemistry, like Brauner said, “lying dormant” until the right trigger set it off?

She tells him “It’s become a personal thing with you…ever since that accident you’ve been on a one-man rampage…you act as if the whole world would disintegrate if you couldn’t find the antidote to that gas tonight!” He says “Look. you don’t know”

She fervently, very prophetically tells him, “I know that science and ego make lousy chemistry ” Then Lois storms out of the laboratory.

He chases after her, but Lt Boutaric catches him at the door.”What’d you do slug the lady?… I thought I saw tears… I guess you scientists have your squalls just like the common herd ha?”

Here we have injected into the plot now the issue of class as seen through the academic/scientific Ivory Tower, the privilege of higher education vs the ordinary uneducated working-class cop. Not unlike the dynamic between Richard Widmark’s pristine middle-class Naval Doctor in Elia Kazan’s Panic in The Streets and William Bendix’s gritty working-class cop and how they initially clashed.

Cordell asks Boutaric what he wants. The Lt is playing with the door. “This is the gadget you had your maintenance man fix the day after the murder”…(there is silence from Cordell) “It’s on his worksheet doctor, an adjusted pneumatic door closer for Dr Cordell.”

Now we also have to ask ourselves about Cordell’s principles and the nature of his machinations under the revelation that he has indeed committed a heinous and brutal crime. As he realizes at this stage that he has in fact the murderer of the young girl. Instead of trying to seek help at least from his colleague and trusted friend Dr. Brauner, he is still keeping this secret to himself putting the community at risk of his sudden blackouts that lead to murderous rage.

Lt Boutaric tells him that he is closing out every possibility. Cordell says she couldn’t have wandered in there, and that he is belaboring that theory.

The two stare at each other. We know that the Lt. has good instincts and that this is his man. The cop vs not the usual very likable empathetic criminal stare-down takes place on screen as the episode evolves into a police procedural noir plot.
“Are you getting anywhere?” “We figure the killer is held up somewhere, but he’ll go on the prowl again. That type has to” Cordell asks a little stunned by this word “type?”

“You didn’t see what he did to the girl did you?” The stridently struck zither/ lyre like a harp instrument breaks across the scene like a metallic shiver.

Denoting the fracturing of the mind. Strike strum strike. Cordell says “NO” and the Lt says “I wish I hadn’t… I’ll be seeing you, doctor.

Cordell is lying on the couch drinking in the lab. Brauner comes in and grabs a drink too. Lois came to see him. He tells him, Frank, as a friend, not your boss, Go home. Get a fresh mind, you’ll see through to the answer. He tells him okay suppose you never rediscover this mysterious gas, this antidote don’t you think the other side has dozens of weapons that we don’t know about? Here we are invoking the fear of the enemy again.

But this is now personal for Cordell. He’s not thinking of the enemy, He has become the enemy and he wants to solve his own brain chemistry and understand his inner demons. Frank stays silent. Brauner gives him an ultimatum. Go fishing or he’s fired.
Brauner tells him, “I accept your resignation Dr. Cordell, the day you became personally involved in this project you ceased being a scientist and this is work for a scientist”

Only a scientist can use objective critical thought. The hierarchy of science rears its head again, the ambivalent message, that you can discover great things, but you can also create a destructive force. It’s dangerous if and when it is left to be dealt with emotionally. Is this Hubris? Is this again the elevation of the educated scientist above the ordinary person?

Brauner tells him to think of some face-saving excuse, then Cordell abruptly stops him, “Wait what do you want me to do? ” “I want you to get out of this hole. and rediscover just how good it is to be alive in the world. You’ve got 2 choices, either resign or go fishing” Cordell says “I hate fishing” Brauner mildly jokes, “Well you could go on a honeymoon.”

Crossfade to a college rally, and a bonfire, Cordell walks out into the night air, the school band is playing. “Beat State” There is a  youth rally. A girl in the crowd is holding a handbell. This sets off Cordell’s delirium tremors again. The screen warps as we see in a blurry haze, him stalking behind her, she turns back, grabs his head in agony,  then reaches out his two hands as if to grab her. The screen spins. Black screen and that eerie empty voiding space of sound.

Now there are neon blinking lights HOTEL, a brightly lit bulb is the first interior prop we see. Then Cordell awakens unshaven, a disheveled mess he sees the bell on the floor, and then a newspaper with the headline, Strangler Strikes Again. We hear his inner thoughts retracing what Lt. Boutaric said earlier. “We’ think he’s held up somewhere, but he’ll go on the prowl again…that type has to”  Cordell holds his mouth in horror at the realization that he has killed once again. Reverberating in his head “That type has to” over and over. The violin underscores his tormenting cycle of thoughts.

He realizes that he must now do something. He goes to the phone. He has given the name Mr. Jones to the night clerk. What day is it? The clerk asks “Want me to send up another bottle?” Cordell looks out at the traffic below his hotel window. The night air seems to refresh him for a moment.

He starts to write a confession letter. : Police, I Dr. Frank Cordell am the murderer of the 2 coeds. When you read this I will be already dead, I must destroy myself before I kill again once this terrible sickness takes possession of me I am unable to stop myself from Killing. It started after I was exposed to an unknown gas, my associate Dr Lois Walker and I have been trying to recreate.”

Suddenly he realizes that Lois might be in danger of coming in contact with the same combination of chemicals.

He goes to the phone to warn her to get out of the lab, and warn her about the gas. Lois picks up the phone. She’s happy to hear from him. He pleads with her to just get out of the lab, don’t go on with those experiments. She tells him that she found it, she’s isolated the element, but he interrupts her.

He tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s fooling with. She tells him Dr. Brauner just came in with the police LT. She wants to put him on the phone but Cordell tells her not to let them know it’s him on the phone.

Lois I’ve got to talk to you first, you’re in danger. She asks if he’s ill. “That gas it’s more hideous than we dreamed, there are effects!

He can’t explain on the phone, I’ve got to talk to you. She says Frank, you are ill. “I’ve got to talk to you…somewhere alone.” She says the old chapel. No one will be there now. She passes both men and doesn’t let on that it was Cordell on the phone. Brauner asks Lt Bouratic not to let Lois know that he suspects Cordell.

“It’s very coincidental that the very day you bring up that a simple little bell could trigger a killer, Cordell holds up in this lab. He ate here, he slept here”Brauner tells him  you can’t suspect a man for being dedicated to his work”

They notice Lois is leaving. She says goodnight. Brauner says if she hears from Cordell to let him know. Just because he stayed held up in the lab is no reason to make him a suspect. “Was he afraid of what he might do if he went out? says the Lt.

Why would he be afraid to go out, he wouldn’t have allowed him to send him away on vacation. Then Lt Boutaric springs something shocking on Brauner.

“I don’t know anything about that, but if you need proof,” he pulls out the bell earring. ” I found it hidden in his room”

Cordell now emerges from the bushes like a night prowling fiend, he enters the chapel. It’s an interesting building to meet in. A religious structure since we are talking about the origins of morality in the human mind.

He falls into the rows of pews and grips the wood bench in front of him, then puts his head down. We see a close-up of an alarm. THE AUTOMATIC CONTROL FOR TOWER BELL DO NOT TOUCH. This is our warning that their meeting will not end well.

Suddenly the immense church bell starts to ring out, thunderously this time, not a mere tinkling bell from a tiny earring. He squeezes his head, running maniacally towards the tower. Climbing the spiral stairs. Lois comes in like a noir femme innocent dressed In a white trench coat. Cordell is up in the tower, battling the giant bell trying to stop its torturous effect. She hears him screaming  “Stop it Stop it.”

He’s swinging from it like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then he is cowering in the corner of the tower clamping his hands over his ears. Now she calls to him “Frank.” He sees her reach out for him, but he is in his  delirious trance-like rage, and he goes to strangle her. She is crying “You’re sick Frank you don’t want to kill me.”

But he cannot stop his rampage. She pushes him. He tries to grab onto the bell, but he slips and falls to his death.

At its climax, Cordell completes his metamorphosis and becomes a full-blown primeval fiend. Unlike the earlier frenzy sequences that are drenched in distorted archaic blear, a cloud of obfuscation, in the end, we actually get to see Frank Cordell completely transformed into a virtual savage.

There is pure clarity as the gigantic bell has transmogrified Cordell’s mania into something visibly monstrous from the id. He has no impulse control to keep him from tearing apart the woman he knows and loves, he is beyond salvation, he is beyond reach.

Ultimately Cordell must be destroyed by the very thing he created, or the thing which created him, as nothing this dangerous, without conscience, an insatiable, destructive man possessed of insensate evil can live in a civilized society. The episode ends with a close-up of the giant bell ringing. Symbolically reverberating, echoing loudly.  The credits end with a bombastic tuba.


6 thoughts on “Boris Karloff’s Thriller: The Ordeal of Dr Cordell: “I know that science and ego make lousy chemistry”

    1. All my postings are ” too long”. They are for geeks like me who love to dive into the stuff that dreams are made of. You could always read them in bits, here and there. Or you could just look at the pictures! I never feel that a few words and images are enough, when it comes to film, television, literature and music.

      Thanks for stopping by

  1. Teeny, tiny, minor point, but I don’t think Cristina Raines was related to Claude Raines at all. Her original name was Tina Herazo. “Raines” was just her stage name.

    1. Ryan, thanks so much for correcting me on this. All these years I had remembered thinking that I had learned she was related to Claude. Even the spelling of her last name is different.

      I should have verified my facts and I appreciate the clarification. She is so beautiful, and I think she made The Sentinel even more intense because of her sensuality.
      This MonsterGirl stands humbly corrected!~

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