At first glance, Number 37 seems like little more than a modern update of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rear Window. Superficially, the comparison works. There’s an injury, a wheelchair, a pair of binoculars, and a crime. That’s all true, and this South African thriller makes no attempts to hide its key influence. But this is no mere remake or rehash of the formula. The core conceit might be the same, but director Nosipho Dumisa takes it in wild new directions.
Number 37 is a film that examines greed, jealousy, and desperation, using these themes to explore the gritty underbelly of South African slums. Dumisa (who also wrote the script) has crafted a deceptively taut film that takes its cues equally from both Hitchcock and David Fincher for maximum tension.
Randal Hendricks (Irshaad Ally) is a low-level crook looking for a big score. To finance his expansion, he borrows a large sum of money from local loan shark Emmie (Danny Ross). Unfortunately, his plans go south and a gun fight leaves him paraplegic and his partner dead. With his debt hanging over his head, he takes to spying on his neighbors as a distraction. That’s when he sees local gang leader, Lawyer (David Manuel) murder a corrupt cop for a bag full of money. With Emmie breathing down his neck for repayment, Randal hatches a blackmail scheme against Lawyer that he desperately tries to keep from spiraling out of control.
As a storyteller, Dumisa clearly has high aspirations. Even with the derivative nature of her first feature, she does a remarkable job weaving her dark and twisted tale and infusing it with style to spare. Stylistically, you can only call it Fincherian. It’s tonally dark, accentuating the grimy hallways and walls of her slum, which adds a layer of oppression to the story. Watching the film, you want nothing more than to be out of the grasp of those walls yourself, so imagine how the characters feel.
There’s a necessary claustrophobia laced into every shot of Number 37 and Dumisa uses that to the total advantage of the story. With much of perspective limited to Randal’s binocular vision, we have very little to go on in terms of what’s actually happening. As with Rear Window, this has the added bonus of increasing the overall tension of the narrative, but Dumisa takes that to oppressive limits.
Unlike Rear Window, however, we have a pretty good idea about what Randal is getting into. The mystique of Hitchcock’s classic is that we’re not exactly sure what’s going on. Did Jimmy Stewart really witness a murder or did he concoct it all in his bored, overactive mind? Here we know exactly what we’re getting into, and that leads us full on into the territories of two murderous psychopaths going up against a desperate man with nothing to lose.
Well, not quite nothing. Dumisa gives Randal, and by extension the audience, someone to root for with his innocent bystander girlfriend, Pam (Monique Rockman). Any tendency you might have to dismiss Randal is rendered moot by the increasing threats against Alicia, who just wants a normal life for her and her boyfriend. Randal’s dangerous games put her directly in the crosshairs, and potential crossfire, of the fiends he’s trying to play, adding an intense extra layer of suspense to the story.
As first features go, Number 37 is a thrilling, if imperfect, example of cinematic storytelling. It’s difficult to say if Dumisa’s ability has quite reached the heights of her reach here, but any flaws in the film are greatly overshadowed by its strengths. If nothing else, Number 37 gives us a remarkable look at the talents of a filmmaker who has clearly not yet reached her full potential. As thrilling as her film is, it will arguably be more thrilling to see just what she is capable of doing next. I, for one, can’t wait.