Sunday, March 21, 2021

Manuela (1957)

Manuela (released in the US as Stowaway Girl) is an odd little 1957 British film, directed by Guy Hamilton, that is a kind of unconventional romance and maritime adventure drama combined. It also has an extremely interesting cast - Trevor Howard, Donald Pleasence, Elsa Martinelli, Pedro Armendáriz and Warren Mitchell (plus Roger Delgado in a very small rôle).

James Prothero (Trevor Howards) is the captain of the tramp steamer Conway Castle. He’s bad-tempered and he drinks too much and he’s been too long at sea. He’s also, although he has never admitted to himself, an incurable romantic.

The Conway Castle has to put in to the small South American port of San Luis. The crew have to bury their chief engineer. Finding a properly qualified replacement in San Luis is impossible so, with some misgivings, he promotes Mario Contanza (Pedro Armendáriz) to the post.

In San Luis he unwittingly picks up a stowaway, the beautiful fiery 17-year-old Manuela (Elsa Martinelli).

She is smuggled aboard by Constanza, who has his own ideas as to how she’s going to repay him. Manuela has no intentions of becoming Mario’s mistress but she is desperate to get to England. Her father was an Englishman, from Windsor. They have castles in Windsor and Manuela, who knows nothing about England, has all kinds of romantic girlish notions about what her life in England will be like. In any case she has very good reasons for wanting to leave San Luis.

Constanza smuggles Manuela aboard as a cabin boy. You won’t be surprised to hear that trying to pass off Elsa Martinelli as a boy is a deception that works successfully for about five minutes.

As you might expect Captain Prothero does not react well when he discovers Manuela’s presence aboard his ship. He decides to put both Manuela and Constanza ashore. Manuela responds by throwing herself overboard.

This is where Prothero’s latent romanticism kicks in. When Manuela is fished out of the water he suddenly softens. In fact he falls in love with her. And she falls in love with him.

But disaster is about to strike the Conway Castle. There is a slow fire in one of the cargo holds. Saving the ship is now the first priority. And, for Captain Prothero, perhaps saving himself from an existence that has become dissatisfying to him. He has had a glimpse of another life he could lead, another destination for which to head. He has a duty to his crew but now he finds himself thinking he has a duty to himself and to Manuela. The problem is that these duties my be mutually irreconcilable.

Trevor Howard was perfect for rôles such as this - a character who could be an obvious cliché but he adds multiple layers of emotional depth. Elsa Martinelli is utterly charming. Donald Pleasence is excellent as the ship’s First Officer, a devout Christian who is utterly devoted to his job and to his ship. And while he and Captain Prothero are wildly incompatible personalities there’s a grudging respect between the two men. Pedro Armendáriz overacts outrageously but delightfully as the passionate but unpredictable Constanza.

Guy Hamilton made some remarkably interesting movies in the 50s and 60s. There was a lot more to his career than the Bond movies. The Intruder and The Ringer are both worth seeing.

Network’s excellent DVD release includes an alternate ending. Almost everybody prefers the standard ending but they’re both reasonably satisfying in their own ways.

The surprisingly effective chemistry between Trevor Howard and Elsa Martinelli (and the fine performances they both give) makes this film work. There’s plenty of suspense when the ship is endangered but it’s basically a character study, and a sophisticated and subtle one. Very highly recommended.

I bought this movie based on a glowing review at Riding the High Country.

It’s interesting to compare this film with Sea Wife, another odd British romance/maritime adventure drama made in the same year. Manuela is by far the better film but Sea Wife is interesting in its own way.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this dvd after reading the same review at Riding the High Country.

    I would also highly recommend this - even if you don't like the film, what a cast! And yes, I also prefer the standard ending (the alternate works and is staged very well, but I'm just a softie at heart!)