The Weakling opens in North Africa during WW2. Ferno (Dennis Hopper) is a highly insubordinate American soldier (in his opening scene he shows his disregard for authority by getting tangled up in a barroom brawl) which makes him pretty much the last person you’d entrust with a mission vital to the war effort.
But Colonel Ballin (John Gregson), a British intelligence officer, believes that Ferno is exactly the right man for the job he has in mind. Ferno is told the time, date and place where the Allied invasion of Europe is due to begin and is parachuted into France to deliver this information to the leader of the Free French underground.
After Ferno is captured by the Germans, he’s subjected to extreme torture in order to make him talk. But Ferno proves hard to crack. This should be good news, but it turns out to be exactly the opposite ……
There’s a wonderful clash of styles in the first act of The Weakling. Not only between Ferno and Ballin but also between Dennis Hopper and John Gregson. They could hardly have been more different as actors. Hopper (1936 – 2010) was a devote of the method school of acting and his off-screen life seemed to mirror Ferno’s. It’s often been observed that Hopper tended to play himself so it’s fair to say that the anti-authoritarian, twitchy Ferno shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for him.
Although his career had began promisingly in the 1950’s (appearing in several films with James Dean, a man he idolised) by the time he recorded this episode of Espionage he’d hit something of a brick wall. His problems, like Ferno’s, were mostly self-inflicted as he proved to be an uncontrollable loose-cannon (more than one director told him he’d never work in Hollywood again). But thanks to the intervention of John Wayne, Hopper slowly began to work his way back into favour, culminating in the sleeper hit Easy Rider (1969).
John Gregson (1919 – 1975) could hardly have been more different. He’d forged a successful career playing supporting roles in many popular British films (Scott of the Antarctic, Whisky Galore!, The Lavender Hill Mob, Genevieve, Above Us The Waves, The Battle of the River plate, etc). When the British film industry began to contract in the 1960’s he moved seamlessly in television, guest-starring in numerous series as well as starring as the avuncular George Gideon in Gideon’s Way. Gregson always appeared to be the very model of stolid reliability, a trait which seems to be shared by Ballin.
Indeed, as Ferno rants and raves at Ballin, it’s instructive to watch the two actors at work. Hopper has the showier material and he certainly goes for it – wringing everything he can from the script. Gregson is still, silent and barely moves – but he still catches the eye, a clear demonstration that less is more.
When Ferno reaches France he makes contact with Jeanne (Patricia Neal), a doctor who agrees to set up his meeting with the resistance. The year after The Weakling was broadcast Neal would win an Oscar for her role in Hud, so she was something of a catch for the series. The scenes between Jeanne and Ferno are played at an intense emotional pitch – Jeanne tells him that she supplies the Nazis with narcotics and is unrepentant about it. She appears to be just another victim of the war – a woman forced to sacrifice her principles – but the truth is much darker. She’s an addict herself and is also revealed to be a collaborator, betraying him to the Nazis. Ferno manages to make his escape and frantically radios to Ballin for help. Ballin hears the message but doesn’t reply. This is another quiet triumph for Gregson as Ballin says nothing – he simply buries his head in his hands.
The truth is revealed shortly afterwards by Ballin. The information Ferno carries is false and the intention all along was that he would be captured, interrogated and finally be forced to give it up. But since Ferno is the sort of man who can withstand a great deal of pain he won’t break easily, which means that the Germans should be convinced that what he tells them is genuine.
Jeanne is charged with getting him to speak, but despite all the drugs at her disposal it’s no easy task. So Handler (Steve Plytas) decides to use more old-fashioned types of persuasion. When we cut back to the room there’s a blow-torch in the background, which tells us all we need to know.
There’s an unspoken black irony about The Weakling. The very title seems to suggest that Ferno was chosen because he was supposed to crack under pressure very quickly – but this is contradicted during the scene where Ferno, and three others, were put through rigorous tests to see which of them would fare best under interrogation. Ferno seemed to be least affected, which surely wasn’t what was needed?
Although Ballin knew he was sending Ferno to suffer, he’s not portrayed as a cold-blooded monster. As Ferno continues to struggle against his interrogators, Ballin (sitting alone in his office) seems to hear his screams and silently urges the man to talk. Eventually, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, Ferno does. But the cost is great – as the American ends up as a shell of the man he used to be.
The closing scene, as Ballin visits him and begs for his forgiveness, is another memorable one. And for one last time we see their two styles at play – Hopper emotes freely, whilst Gregson, leaving the room with a tear trickling down his eye, is much more restrained.
If The Weakling has a flaw then it’s probably some of Dennis Hopper’s dialogue. At times Ferno talks with 1960’s idioms, which sit uneasily with the wartime setting. It’s easy to believe that Hopper himself dropped these into the script and, given all we know about his personality, refused to compromise. His full-throttle approach may not appeal to all, but it’s the difference between him and Gregson (as well as the moral complexities of the story) that make this such a fascinating watch.