Number 37 is the first feature from South African director Nosipho Dumisa, which uses Hitchcock’s Rear Window as a skeleton around which it wraps a thriller of drug dealers and debts. Randal (Irshaad Ally) has been left paralyzed and wheelchair-bound after a scheme to make quick cash goes wrong. He’s in debt to loan shark, Emmie (Danny Ross) who gives him seven days to pay on the debt before both he and his girlfriend, Pam (Monique Rockman) are murdered. With a gift of a pair of binoculars, Randal spends his days watching out the window of their apartment and begins scheming to make his money back.
It’s a stop-me-if-you-heard-this-one type story that falls into predictable beats. It has your standard characters and situations with all of its original voice relegated to details. And yet, despite its script, the movie manages to remain taught and desperate in a way that still commands your attention without ever dragging out.
Director: Nosipho Dumisa
Release Date: March 10, 2018 (SXSW)
The main problem with Number 37 is that, while it’s meant to invoke Rear Window, it also invokes a ton of other thrillers to the point that little is left as a surprise. Randal and Pam’s relationship is on the rocks, because she wants him to go straight while he’s been secretly working to make the one big score that will set them for life. They have a friend, Warren (Ephram Gordon) who’s a brash showoff that gets them in trouble. They try to steal from a drug dealer who’s known for being a ruthless killer. A detective searching for her dead partner knows Randal is up to something, but he refuses to work with her. You’ve seen this movie before. But what rescues Number 37 from being just another forgettable thriller is an air of sincere hopelessness that permeates the film.
Irshaad Ally and Monique Rockman are standout performers, creating a relationship that feels genuine and lived-in. They both wear fear and tension in such a palpable way that the old thriller beats still dig in and drag you along as Randal pushes tears out in shaking horror from his wheelchair and Pam struggles to hold her composure as her life tumbles against her will. Against the bleak and filthy setting of South African slums, every shot reinforces their desperation and the helpless gravity of their struggle.
The lighting washes each frame in greens and reds that are often striking, though the natural light is overexposed. The framing is strong, but certain effects, like a quick-zoom or clock spinning, come off as more cheesy than artsy. The blood effects often look grueling and realistic, but most violence happens off-screen, which deflates certain moments, especially toward the end.
It would have been nice to have seen Number 37 embrace its grim atmosphere more and subvert the genre it emulates. Unfortunately, every time it skirts toward true shock, it pulls its punches too soon. Tension here never comes from not knowing what will happen next so much as from the absolutely commanding performances of its leads. They, with the help of the setting and shooting, carry the script on their shoulders and make the old feel just new enough to remain thrilling.