It’s very tempting to describe — but totally unfair to dismiss — Nosipho Dumisa’s “Number 37” as a well-researched master’s thesis by a student of Alfred Hitchcock. Dumisa, an award-winning South African writer-director making her feature filmmaking debut, has brazenly borrowed from “Rear Window” for her scenario about an incapacitated petty criminal who views a murder in an apartment across the way from his. And she doesn’t stop there: Even her title is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusion to two other Hitchcock films: “Number 13,” his famously unfinished 1922 directorial debut, and “Number Seventeen,” a minor 1932 melodrama about thieves who pick the wrong place to stash their loot.
But don’t let any of that keep you away. Far more substantial than a run-of-the-mill Hitchcock homage, “Number 37” is richly satisfying on its own terms as a singularly crafty and strikingly well-crafted thriller that signals the arrival of a promising filmmaking talent. And the most impressive thing about it is the way Dumisa stealthily conveys and sustains a noir-like sense of the inexorable, building suspense by methodically adhering to a ruthless scene-to-scene, mishap-to-mishap logic.
Randal Hendricks (Irshaad Ally), the protagonist of the piece, is a small-time burglar who, as the film begins, borrows money from Emmie (Danny Ross), an unforgiving loan shark, so he and his best buddy can purchase drugs from gangsters and launch their own contraband-dealing business. This is a bad career move: The gangsters kill the buddy and cripple Randal. Relegated to a wheelchair, he moves into a seedy apartment complex in the Cape Flats area north of Cape Town, where he hopes — in vain, of course — to avoid Emmie. Eager to help him pass the time, Pam (Monique Rockman), Randal’s loyal girlfriend, gives him binoculars to view what his neighbors are up to. And that, to paraphrase the title of yet another Hitchcock movie, is how Randal soon becomes the man who sees too much.
Specifically: While randomly gazing at a nearby building, he inadvertently witnesses the killing of a crooked cop by Lawyer (David Manuel), a vicious mobster, and his thugs. Not surprisingly, given his desperate situation — Emmie wants payback, or else — and chronic recklessness, Randal sees opportunity as well as mayhem. He enlists Pam and another buddy, Warren (Ephram Gordon), in a high-risk blackmail scheme involving cell phones, bold threats, cash-stuffed bags and conveniently located trash cans, aimed at forcing Lawyer to buy his silence. For a tantalizing stretch of time, everything goes according to plan. And then everything doesn’t.
Dumisa obviously learned her lessons well while studying “Rear Window” for ingenious ways to mercilessly ratchet up tension with sometimes vivid, sometimes disorienting p.o.v. shots. She forces us to observe key events through Randal’s binoculars — which occasionally can’t be directed quickly enough at what Randal frantically attempts to see — and, on more than one occasion, invites us to share Randal’s impotent terror as he watches helplessly while others are imperiled. Just as important, Dumisa raises the stakes by repeatedly threatening not just a visit by an angry Raymond Burr, but an untimely intrusion by Emmie and his sidekick; Lawyer and his flunkies; or Detective Gail February (Sandi Schultz), a hardboiled, straight-arrow cop who really doesn’t need any backup. James Stewart never had it so rough.
Expanding on her well-received short of the same title (which she co-directed with Travis Taute, one of this film’s executive producers), Dumisa eschews the artfully effective artificiality of “Rear Window,” which was filmed on a soundstage, and strives for an unflinchingly gritty, even squalid realism that’s vigorously enhanced by Zenn Van Zyl’s on-location lensing in Cape Flats locales. She mostly treads lightly when it comes to graphic depictions of violence — we don’t see how Randal was crippled, because we don’t have to — but her relative restraint in no way diminishes the impact as she details buildup and aftermath. Especially aftermath.
Ally and Rockman fully inhabit their characters, giving full-bodied performances that rivet attention throughout the twists of the plot, and prolong rooting interest even when Randal seems most self-destructive and Pam is his all-too-willing enabler. Schultz emerges as first among equals in the supporting cast, infusing Gail February — a character who should appear in a spinoff movie just on the strength of her name — with fierce determination and unflappable savvy.
To answer the inevitable question: Yes, “Number 37” appears ready-made for an Americanized remake. Indeed, you could argue that such a move would be a fair turnabout. But to make sure nothing gets lost in the translation, it might be a good idea to engage Dumisa for the enterprise. After all, she’s already made the grade as a re-interpreter.