This Cape Town-set thriller from South African filmmaker Nosipho Dumisa wears its influences proudly and pleasurably. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. That certainly applies to South African writer-director Nosipho Dumisa, who takes the premise of one of her favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic man-in-a-wheelchair thriller Rear Window (1954), and gives it a grittier, much more sanguine spin in her debut feature, Number 37. Would that her lead character, Randal Hendricks (Irshaad Ally), followed the same advice. He just borrows and takes from the worst of the worst: first from a loan shark, Emmie (Danny Ross), whose interest charges on late payments are of the life-ending variety, and second from a bunch of gangsters who break his back and leave him crippled before the narrative proper has even begun.
Now the clock is ticking on his payback to Emmie and Randal has no immediate prospects. He and girlfriend Pam (Monique Rockman) have no choice but to move into a decrepit, crime-ridden apartment complex in the Cape Flats section of Cape Town, which turns out to be a boon of sorts. Pam gifts Randal a pair of binoculars that lets him see what his neighbors are up to across the way. There alongside the devoted local pastor (Elton Landrew) and Randal’s daffy buddy Warren (Ephram Gordon) lives Lawyer (David Manuel), a murderous gangster storing a duffel bag full of cash in his closet. Simple game: get the money, zero the debt, live off the rest. But how, exactly?
That’s fodder for a lot of cleverness on Dumisa’s part, as she conceives myriad obstacles for Randal to overcome — everything from a knife-wielding albino (Luke Jansen) to a set of garbage pails that act as both a best and worst hiding place. And she also adroitly ratchets up the tension, in large part with the aid of James Olivier’s dissociative sound design, despite much of the action being confined to a single location. As in the Hitchcock original, milieu is key. Rear Window was set in a Greenwich Village artists’ community that was itself a fanciful work of art, the New York City set entirely created on a Hollywood soundstage. Number 37, by contrast, is shot on location in Cape Flats. The neighborhood is fictional, but the setting and the people (many of them plucked from Cape Flats itself) have a genuineness that complicates the traditional thriller beats and grounds the proceedings in verisimilitude.
There’s still a sordid slickness that often overcomes the film, notably in the form of some sped-up trick shots (through keyholes and between apartments) that should have gone out of vogue after David Fincher abused them in Panic Room (2002). And purely in terms of story, Dumisa doesn’t have Hitchcock’s obsessional/ineffable qualities, the ones that lifted Rear Window into the rarefied realm of art. This is derivative if well-executed product, except when it comes to the relationship at the film’s center.
Just as the masochistically complex romance between James Stewart and Grace Kelly is the off-kilter heart of Rear Window, so is the sadistically intricate rapport between Randall and Pam the main draw here. They begin the film at verbally, and occasionally physically, abusive odds — he often heatedly desperate to do right by doing wrong, she defiantly committed to living life totally within the bounds of law and order. Then they slowly, if reluctantly, move into a simpatico orbit that is nonetheless more bloody and barbaric than they could possibly imagine. The further they sink into their spiraling criminal scheme, the deeper their passion for each other grows, and it’s quite thrilling to watch, especially in the affecting final moments. Love means never having to say you’re sorry… for losing a finger or being beaten to a pulp.