In the Mediterranean this cargo ship has just lost its first mate, and that's because he died. The Captain, James Prothero (Trevor Howard), orders the body ashore, so he and the crew load the flag-draped coffin into a boat and begin to row to the harbour, the reverend, Evans (Donald Pleasence) reading quietly from scripture along the way but not receiving much respect from his fellow sailors. Once on dry land, they see to it that the coffin reaches its destination and Mario Constanza (Pedro Armendáriz) makes a bid to succeed the deceased in the position of mate, only to be brusquely turned down by Prothero who simply does not trust him. But as the men enjoy a drink before setting off, they notice one young woman in need of help...
She being the Manuela of the title, played by Italian ex-model Elsa Martinelli as one of those exotic, non-native English language speaking ladies who would show up in international movies as producers cast around for their next Brigitte Bardot, someone with an alluring accent they could market as a sex symbol. Her character here was actually a teenager, which made the pattern of events rather more forward than would have happened in movies these days, especially as Manuela turns out to have been a prostitute and is trying to escape that life by hitching a ride to Britain on the nearest available ship. Mario takes one look at her and offers to assist by stowing her away as a supposed cabin boy, right under the nose of Prothero.
The resulting romance between the middle-aged Captain and the seventeen-year-old girl is not something that a modern movie would likely consider as entertainment, and indeed you could argue this film didn't either, as it was relentlessly dour in tone, wallowing so far in its male lead's disgust with the world that it is suggested he has taken to a life on the ocean wave to get away from everyone else, keeping his interaction to a minimum and even then deporting himself with such a bad temper that hardly anyone would want to get to know him anyway. Yet Manuela may just thaw that heart of ice, she initially tries to get close to him as a method of bettering her lot, just as she has with many older men before, but then a funny thing happens when they really click.
I say funny, it wasn't funny at all, it was still bloody miserable and the fact that Prothero has finally found a female he can get on with throws up all sorts of fresh issues for him to deal with. As Evans realises to his disdain when he visits the Captain's quarters, this is a sexual relationship, but as if to heap opprobrium on such an arrangement, as much for the supposed exploitation involved as it is for the generation gap, by the time the odd couple are starting to really fall in love, the universe decides this is not right at all and sees to it that any fine glimmer of happiness is snuffed out forthwith. This is demonstrated with that old cinematic favourite, the visual metaphor, and what a metaphor it is as the further the bond between them is forged, the less seaworthy the ship becomes.
To the extent that the vessel's engine room begins to overheat in a manner reminiscent of some angry God's wrath visited upon the characters, and exemplified by the utter lack of interest the crew have for Evans' piety. You could see this as a rejection of religion, yet it could also have been an excuse in the plotting to punish the denizens aboard the doomed ship for their arrogance and ungodliness, it was difficult to tell as Evans was unmistakably less sympathetic than Prothero and Manuela. This mood of defeatism, the unspoken but definitely present on the minds "what's the point?" demeanour summed up by Howard's by now customary gruff manner, pervaded the whole film, and director Guy Hamilton, who would guide a number of James Bond efforts later on, here preferred to delve into grim philosophy and character study, albeit with a major action sequence included in the latter half. Manuela was not so much a melancholy film as it was a bitter one, and not much fun to watch in truth, yet with a certain integrity to its bleakness. Music by William Alwyn.
[The Network DVD in their The British Film line has an alternate ending and a trailer as extras. Print looks very good.]