'Dial ``M'' for Murder,' he wrote Durable thriller: Frederick Knott is responsible for some classic dramatic murders that never die.

October 23, 1995|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Frederick Knott has had murder on his mind for more than 40 years.

Exhibit "A" is his 1952 play "Dial 'M' for Murder," which proved to be a durable thriller in its television, theater and film versions.

Although Mr. Knott didn't meet with any success when he first shopped the script around to British theater producers, a live broadcast of the play on British television changed all that. The ensuing stage production was a hit in both London and New York.

Those intrigued by this crime drama included Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1954 movie version featured the murderously delectable cast of Grace Kelly, Ray Milland and Robert Cummings.

Now a nationally touring revival of the play starring Roddy McDowall, Nancy Allen and John James will open tomorrow at the Lyric Opera House.

Mr. Knott won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for "Dial 'M' for Murder," and he won another in 1961 for "Write Me a Murder." He exhibited further homicidal tendencies in his 1966 play "Wait Until Dark," which was turned into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin.

What sort of man would devote his life to scaring us?

As it turns out, Frederick Knott is a cheerful, 78-year-old British gent who blames it all on the entertainment he consumed during boyhood.

"It's entirely due to what interested and excited me when I was 11 years old," he enthusiastically recalls during a telephone conversation from his New York home. "The first plays I saw aside from Gilbert and Sullivan were repertory companies doing 'Bulldog Drummond' and that sort of thing."

Among the theatrical experiences that sparked his imagination was seeing "An Inspector Calls" in London in 1946. He considers J. B. Priestley's drama "a morality play in the form of a thriller." Informed that it'll be playing at the Mechanic Theatre while his own play takes over the Lyric, he expresses delight Baltimore will be a thrill-a-minute town this week.

What this playwright likes so much about plotting a murder is how his characters' most carefully laid plans can fall apart.

"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.

"It applies to real life, where you've got the right idea and then it's always difficult -- including marriage and everything else."

As Mr. Knott goes on to discuss the murder-your-spouse plot of "Dial 'M' for Murder," he provides a crucial clue as to what appealed to Alfred Hitchcock.

"The play had a very strong story line and was not a thriller where the actors turn and wink at the audience. I wrote it deadly serious and the humor that came through was in things I had not planned. It arose from ironic situations."

Hitchcock's ironic, darkly humorous sense of the macabre prompted the great director to invite Mr. Knott out to Hollywood to script the movie version.

"It was a tremendous experience to watch him working. It was pure joy. I think there were two Hitchcocks. At home, the private Hitchcock was one of the most unassuming, very kind and amusing people you could meet.

"When he was on the set, everybody loved working around him. He could show off and be very funny. I had been warned by somebody who'd worked with him earlier in England that he could be a little frightening, but fortunately I never ran into that," Mr. Knott says, dismissing Donald Spoto's harsh biography of Hitchcock, "The Dark Side of Genius," as "a rather nasty book about him."

One unusual aspect of the "Dial 'M " movie production was that it was shot in 3-D during Hollywood's brief flirtation with that process in the early 1950s.

It was originally released in a "flat" version, however, and exhibited in 3-D only for a more recent re-release.

"The movie was made just after 'House of Wax' and I would've liked to see it also go out in 3-D. But it didn't," he said. "I've never gone along with the argument against 3-D that people wearing the glasses would get a headache. I never got a headache."

"Dial 'M' "

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7:30 p.m Sunday. Through Oct. 29

Tickets: $19-$39

Call: (410) 481-SEAT

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