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Frederick Knott: The Reluctant Writer

By Carly Higley

 

For someone who received a substantial amount of fame and acclaim for his ingenious and unorthodox plots, Frederick Knott has a remarkably slim list of credits to his name. These plays and screenplays, however, were so successful that they allowed him to thrive in his beloved Manhattan for the last thirty years of his life, adding nothing further to his literary accomplishments (Tom Vallance, “Frederick Knott [http://www.Independent.co.uk, 26 December 2002]). As his wife told Douglas Martin of the New York Times in a 2002 interview, “He hated writing. He wrote only for the money” (20 December 2002, 15). It is extremely fortunate, then, that he was still in need of finances when he contrived the play and, later movie adaptation, Dial M for Murder, or we might not be enjoying it at this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Frederick Knott was born 28 of August 1916 in Hankow, China, the son of well-to-do Quaker missionaries (Elaine Woo, “Frederick Knott, 86” [Los Angeles Times, Obituaries, 22 December 2002]). During this time, the foundation was laid for his career with the stage when he and his sister Jean listened to records from Gillbert and Sullivan plays with Knott then staging his own versions in the family garden. At ten years of age his parents sent him back to England for formal education at the Quaker approved schools of Sidcott and Oundle, followed by four years at Cambridge from 1934 to 1938. During this time he played tennis for Cambridge and was by all accounts a gifted competitor. He would have competed at the most prestigious of all tennis tournaments, Wimbledon, had not World War II occurred (Vallance). As it was, he served Britain admirably in the Royal Artillery for the duration of the war (Woo).

After the war, he tried his hand at screenwriting for several years with little success until the simple sound of a gunshot became the muse for a masterpiece (Vallance). Knott later said in an interview: “I was always intrigued with the idea that somebody would plan a crime, and then you see that everything doesn’t turn out right. You can plan a murder in great detail and then put the plan into action and invariably something goes wrong and then you have to improvise, and in the improvisation you trip up and make a very big mistake”(Ronald Bergen, “Frederick Knott: Playwright and screenwriter preoccupied with the question of the perfect crime” [http://www.The Guardian.co.uk, 16 January 2003]).

He spent the following eighteen months confined in a small “chalet” next to his parents’ estate in Sussex, purchased in 1948, doing very little but eating, sleeping, and writing about his idea (Bergen). Indeed, there were many days he spent entirely in pajamas where the only other soul he saw was his mother, when she would drop off meals (Vallance). Apparently, he wasn’t the only one intrigued by the idea of a planned murder gone awry because the success of the result, Dial M for Murder, continues to capture audiences over fifty years later. Amazingly, Knott was turned down seven times when he offered it to various producers, including August McLeod who was superbly confident that, “the play as a whole would cause little interest” (Martin). In 1952, just before Knott was about to accept that his screenplay was a failure, the BBC offered to produce it as a ninety-minute “television play.” The production enthralled audiences and caught the eye of a very shrewd producer, Sir Alexander Korda (Martin). Recognizing the big screen potential of the play, he persuaded Knott to sell the rights to him for a paltry £1,000 before selling it in turn to Warner Brothers for £175,000 (Vallance). However, it was not all disappointment that Knott experienced during this time period. At a party following a Broadway performance, he met his future and lifelong wife, Ann Hillary, who later revealed, “I took one look at Frederick and was absolutely fascinated.” The feeling was mutual and they wed in 1953 (Vallance).

Meanwhile, Warner Brother’s entrusted the rights to Dial M for Murder to the skilled hands of Alfred Hitchcock, who entrusted Knott himself to write the screenplay. During the shooting of the movie, Knott stayed with Alfred Hitchcock and his family, and the two similar, scheming minds got along so well that a lasting friendship was formed (Vallance). In 1954 Dial M for Murder premiered at the cinema, and a legend was born.

Encouraged by his success, Frederick Knott tried his hand outside the suspense genre with the play, Mr. Fox of Venice, but to no avail; His gift was weaving sinister suspense stories, and all future theatrical success fit into that category, most notably the plays Write Me A Murder in 1961 and Wait until Dark in 1966 (Bergen). In 1967 Wait until Dark was made into a film starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who destroys the lights in her house, leveling the field as she confronts three intruders (Bergen). The film was tremendously popular, and Audrey Hepburn received an Oscar nod for her performance (Vallance).
Frederick Knott had a mind that was a potential money pot. Maurice Evans, who played the lead in Dial M for Murder at Westminster Theatre in 1952, described him as “a particularly meticulous writer. The fascinating web of clues, counterclues, and red herrings that so intrigued theatre audiences is typical of the way his mind works. . . . Every detail of his plot is placed with the deadly accuracy of stroke in a championship tournament (Vallance).

The lucrative potential of his genius plot lines generated a demand for more stories of morbidly fascinating themes, but Knott had no desire to accommodate any request. No amount of money offered could change his mind. Though he had two complete plays already constructed in his head, he could not be induced to ever pen a word of them to paper (Woo). “He was perfectly happy the way things were,” related his wife (Vallance). Knott spent the last three decades of his life with his wife in New York enjoying the fruits of a few strokes of genius and the company of friends until his death on December 17, 2002 (Martin). Mrs. Knott described their life together as “a marriage as perfect as any I can imagine”(Vallance). Frederick Knott is survived by his wife and son, two grandsons, and a legacy of literary intrigue.


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