SXSW Film Review – Number 37
I’ve attempted to start my review of the South African crime drama Number 37 (2018) a few times now. And yet I found myself erasing my first paragraph and starting over repeatedly. What does it mean for a film when you come away not having much to say? That does not mean there isn’t a level of quality here. Director Nosipho Dumisa, who also wrote the screenplay (with Daryne Joshua and Travis Taute getting story credits), creates a story with a good amount of suspense while also establishing a distinct sense of location (it was shot in Cape Town). But as well made as it is on a technical level, I left feeling cold and detached. Instead of being invested into what was happening, I simply witnessed it from a distance.
Keen observers will immediately recognize the Alfred Hitchcock influence. Lifting the set up from Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Dumisa places the majority of the action within a rundown apartment complex in what looks to be a tough part of Cape Town. Zenn van Zyl’s cinematography provides us with a number of establishing wide shots of the area, setting up the geography. In one apartment lives Randal (Irshaad Ally), whose unfortunate run in with some drug dealers has left him paralyzed in a wheelchair. In an attempt to help him cope with his situation, Randal’s loving girlfriend Pam (Monique Rockman) gifted him some binoculars so that he can see into the outside world.
Of course, this is exactly the same situation James Stewart found himself in with Rear Window. Dumisa incorporates much of the same camera work, looking through the binoculars to see from the protagonist’s perspective. The editing (Simon Beesley) does a good job of cutting between what Randal sees and his facial reactions. We never have to be told what Randal is thinking because the technical proficiency does it for us. While Rear Window examined the philosophical implications of spying on stranger’s lives, Dumisa uses the same approach as a means to drive the narrative. There are no debates about whether or not Randal peeping into other windows is morally right. Instead, it’s used simply as a tool for him to accomplish his goals. You see, Randal is in a bit of trouble. He borrowed money from a sadistic loan shark named Emmie (Danny Ross) and used that money to set up an arrangement with the drug dealers. Randal’s connection with the drug dealers left him without the money or the use of his legs, and now Emmie has come back looking for his debt to be repaid.
In the crime genre, there has to be a certain level of desperation that forces characters to break the law. Sometimes it’s about money, or sex, or sometimes both. When a person gets pushed to a certain point, they have to take risks if they want to survive. For Randal, that risk comes in the form of Lawyer (David Manuel), a dangerous criminal that lives in the building across from him. One night, Randal notices Lawyer and his goons engaging in some nefarious activity through his window. Instead of calling the cops, Randal uses this opportunity to blackmail Lawyer into giving the money he needs to pay off Emmie. Employing the services of both Pam and his friend Warren (Ephram Gordon), Randal conjures up a scheme so loose that it would be a total shock if it didn’t fall apart at the seams.
I’ve always enjoyed a good crime drama, and on the surface Number 37 looks like a solid entry. There is a grittiness to the aesthetics. The outside world has a dusty atmosphere. Inside the apartment complex, characters sweat from the heat, and the walls and floors are covered with a kind of mustiness. This all lends to a claustrophobic style that works for this type of story. But ultimately, I never felt emotionally involved in the stakes. This partly has to do with Randal himself. His character development never caused me to have empathy for him. In fact, much of his actions worked as a deterrent, especially in the way he treated many of the other characters. Yes, it’s true that he is in a bad situation, one that would cause anybody else to act irrationally. And yet, where he has ended up has a lot to do with the bad decisions he has made. He mistreats his friends, some of whom experience first hand the consequences of his criminality. If anything, I was more attached to Pam on an emotional level. Here is a character that would do anything for the person she loves, even though he constantly pushes her away or simply ignores her.
Number 37 didn’t work for me in terms of character, but on a technical level there is a lot of promise. Nosipho Dumisa took a well known approach from a well known filmmaker and it made it her own, infusing it with an identity distinctive of its location. As the saying goes – when it comes to art, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.