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The Guardian (16/Jan/2003) - Obituary: Frederick Knott

(c) The Guardian (16/Jan/2003)

Frederick Knott

Playwright and screenwriter preoccupied with the question of the perfect crime

Frederick Knott, who has died aged 86, lived the commercial playwright's dream by writing three hugely successful plays, two of which were turned into hugely successful films. He did very nicely by Dial M For Murder, Write Me A Murder and Wait Until Dark - he could have done even better.

After Dial M For Murder was turned down by seven London producers, and accepted by the BBC for a 90-minute drama slot in 1952, Knott sold the film rights to Alexander Korda for a measly £1,000. Korda then accepted £175,000 from Warner Bros, who bought it for Alfred Hitchcock. Knott, nevertheless, got to write the screenplay for a tidy sum.

Although Knott received nothing for the 1998 Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow remake, A Perfect Murder, which was slickly updated to include a mobile phone, he enjoyed the royalties of the play, which is constantly revived around the world. In 1981, there was a TV version with Angie Dickinson and Christopher Plummer.

Knott was born in China, the son of British Quaker missionaries, and educated at Oundle School and Cambridge University, graduating in 1938. He ended wartime Royal Artillery service as a major.

He was then a script editor at Hammer, writing the screenplay of The Last Page (1951, known as Man Bait in the US), from a James Hadley Chase play and directed by Terence Fisher. A competent British programmer, it featured American star George Brent as a London bookseller who is involved in blackmail and murder.

Knott wrote Dial M For Murder over 18 months in a cottage next to his parents' home in Sussex. Its second outing, after the TV version, was at London's Westminster Theatre, and then on Broadway with Maurice Evans as the cad who plans to kill his adulterous wife (Gusti Huber). Anthony Dawson, as the hired killer, and John Williams, as the inspector who calls, repeated their roles in Hitchcock's film. The play ran for 16 months.

"I was always intrigued with the idea that somebody would plan a crime, and then you see that everything doesn't turn out right," Knott once explained. "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."

This could have been Hitchcock talking, and the "well-made" play, which wisely Knott did not open out -most of the action remains in the London home of the wealthy couple - offered the director enough scope for some of his characteristic bravura moments. One in particular was during the murder attempt as the wife (Grace Kelly) desperately tries to reach a pair of scissors to defend herself. During the shoot, Hitchcock demanded that the murder weapon should gleam. "Scissors that don't gleam are like asparagus without Béarnaise sauce," he remarked.

After his one attempt outside the thriller genre, Mr Fox Of Venice, an updating of Volpone, had failed, Knott returned in 1961 to his preoccupation with the perfect crime that goes wrong in Write Me A Murder, which ran on Broadway for 196 performances. It was set in a stately home, where a businessman (Denholm Elliott) and his would-be thriller writer wife (Kim Hunter) get involved in a plot with two scheming brothers.

Less conventional was Wait Until Dark, which revolved around the question of how a blind woman can defend herself. The plot concerns a recently blinded woman who is unwittingly in possession of a doll filled with drugs. Three con men wangle their way into her apartment, where she is alone, and terrorise her. The audience, who are well aware of all the facts, can only watch as the victim tries to decipher the men's intent. The success of the 1966 play (starring Lee Remick on Broadway and Honor Blackman in London) and the 1967 film (with Audrey Hepburn) depended for the most part on the performance of the leading lady.

When the play was revived on Broadway in 1998, it flopped, mainly because of the miscasting of Marisa Tomei and, as the psychotic drug dealer, Quentin Tarantino, who one critic thought couldn't "scare a deer out of a pair of oncoming headlights". The play revealed itself as a creaky relic.

This didn't worry the playwright, who had not written another word professionally for 30 years.

Knott is survived by his wife, a son and two grandsons.