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.
LOS ANGELES: Amy Adams is in talks to star in the upcoming Annapurna Pictures drama “The True American,” sources tell Variety.
Insiders close to the situation say a deal has not yet closed and scheduling is still being worked out, specifically regarding her promotion efforts on her upcoming HBO limited series “Sharp Objects,” but that Adams wants this as her next film project. Adams is also a producer on “Sharp Objects” and considers the project a high priority, making her promotion on the HBO project a bigger commitment than a usual tour.
Annapurna could not be reached for comment.
“Jackie” helmer Pablo Larrain is on board to direct, and Mark Ruffalo and Kumail Nanjiani are also in talks to co-star with Adams.
With production on “Sharp Objects” and the upcoming Dick Cheney pic “Backseat” coming to a close, Adams had been weighing several projects, but it had always seemed like “The True American” was the frontrunner to be her next commitment.
Based on the nonfiction book by Anand Giridharadas, “The True American” is set in Texas in the days following the 9/11 attacks. It follows Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim immigrant and Bangladesh Air Force veteran who narrowly survived a killing spree that took the lives of two other immigrants. Employed at a Dallas-area convenience store as he established himself in America, Bhuiyan worked to have his attacker, Mark Stroman, spared from execution. (RTRS)
Annapurna has been developing the film for some time, and at one point, Kathryn Bigelow was on board to direct and Tom Hardy was attached to star. After Bigelow left to direct “Detroit,” the project was in flux until Larrain’s attachment last April.
Annapurna topper Megan Ellison, Bigelow, Matthew Budman, and Juan de Dios Larrain will produce.
Following a busy 2016 that included the Oscar-nominated “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals,” Adams took a bit of a break in 2017, only appearing as Lois Lane in “Justice League.” 2018 looks to be busier, including “Sharp Objects,” which premieres this year, as well as “Backseat,” where she will portray Cheney’s wife, Lynn. That movie also stars Christian Bale and is already expected to drum up awards attention.
By Joe Leydon