MANUELA, an offbeat and compelling adult-oriented drama from England in 1957 makes for a neat surprise for fans of its three charismatic lead actors—Trevor Howard, Elsa Martinelli and Pedro Armendariz—and their director, future Bond helmsman Guy Hamilton. Besides directing, Hamilton, along with Ivan Foxwell, helped William Woods write the script. Woods slim 159-page book  came out the same year as “Manuela: A Novel of Love and Revenge”. The seaborne sex & salvation story carries whiffs of Maugham and Conrad.

At sea after leaving port in Brazil, British freighter captain ‘James Prothero’ (Howard) is less than happy when he finds out that valued but volatile Maltese crewman ‘Mario Constanza’ (Armendariz), lust-bitten, has smuggled aboard a beautiful teenaged girl (Martinelli), half Brazilian, half English, desperate to get away from her miserable chattel existence and escape to England. The lonely captain becomes as captivated by the charming and spirited ‘Manuela’ as the dangerously jealous Mario. Repressed junior officer ‘Evans’ (Donald Pleasence) isn’t comfortable, with much of anything, let alone the middle-aged Prothero and the enticing young woman getting openly friendly. More than feelings and propriety are at stake, however, when a fire erupts on the ship.

Earlier, in his cups, Prothero vented to a harbormaster: “You want to know the truth? It’s just that suddenly tonight, I saw myself growing old. And I didn’t like it. When you’re young you see the good days all ahead of you. Then suddenly you get older and catch sight of them behind you and wonder how in the devil’s name they got there.”  The man replies, “It’s a discovery everybody makes, Senhor.”  Yep.

Some of the supporting players are mediocre, but that’s a quibble as the leads do quite well. Howard and Armendariz give dimension to their characters acute emotional isolation, if expressed differently. Howard, 43, beautifully delineates the captain at a crossroad collision of duty and desire–watch how a smile completely softens his countenance. Armendariz, 44, plays it bull-in-a-china-shop big, but he tempers the lustiness with longing, managing a surprising character arc under the bluster and bravado. Martinelli at 21 (Manuela is 17 going on 30) is a vision, vivacious and frank, guarded and determined. Pleasence, 36, was steadily making a name for himself in British films, and he provides a prevue here of his mastery of mean-streaks to come.

Shooting on the coast of Spain, Hamilton & crew were blessed with a crack cinematographer in Otto Heller, framing some excellent closeups. The fire sequence is excitingly staged. The ubiquitous William Alwyn adds a dramatic score.

Taut and involving, compactly told in 87 minutes, it was well reviewed in England, but when released in the U.S. it barely made a ripple ($200,000 gross), the title changed to the more exploitative Stowaway Girl, thoughtlessly stuck onto double bills with Mister Rock and Roll. Which makes about as much sense as it sounds.

With Jack MacGowran (always welcome) and Roger Delgado (the leering stranger in the bar at the end).



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