Treachery by Telephone

dialmn

Blitz Magazine, March 2003

Ever heard that choice piece of advice ‘Write What You Know’? Evidently, no one said that to the author of Dial M For Murder. Frederick Knott, who passed away just three months ago, was the child of a perfect marriage and grew up to become a famously perfect husband.

He was born and raised in China (to wealthy missionaries) and was set to spend his life as a professional tennis player. After finishing at Cambridge, however, he was at his family’s Sussex estate when a gun went off, an idea came into his head and he promptly sequestered himself for 18 months, furiously writing his play. When it was finished, it was rejected so many times that he was about to tear it up and head back to the grass when the BBC bought it, and aired it. An American producer promptly snapped up the film rights—for the dismal sum of $2000.

His play, meanwhile, was a smash in London, opened on Broadway in 1952 and enjoyed a five-year SRO run in 30 countries. Alfred Hitchcock was intrigued by the play. He had one film left in his contract with Warner Bros., he was tired and wanted to try to adapt a stage play set entirely in one room—he said, to recharge his batteries. But the studio forced him to film in 3-D, despite the fact that the 3-D fad was fading and most theatres would show it in conventional format. Hitchcock’s solution was to use swoops, zooms and angled overhead shots to make scenes look as if they were captured on surveillance cameras. The finished product became one of the very few successful 3-D movies ever made. It was shot it in 36 days and was released in 1954, starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Knott wrote the screenplay, but received no credit for it.

knott

It’s a great story. Tony, a slick playboy and professional tennis player, marries a wealthy socialite, strictly for her money. The marriage is a bust but Tony knows that a divorce would leave him penniless. He hatches a plot to have Margot killed. He blackmails an old friend of his into carrying out the hit. But, as we know, Margot whacks her attacker. Tony has to switch to Plan B, a dastardly set of deeds that very nearly succeeds….but I won’t spoil the ending.

Knott, who did not have a head for business, didn’t make much money on his first creation, or his second, The Last Page. He did make up for it, however, with his third, and last, play: Wait Until Dark.

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