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Unlikely Watch Collector

The Unlikely Watch Collector: Columbo Part 2 – The Victims & Villains

Whether used by the murderer or worn by the victim, watches and clocks play a key role throughout the long-running TV series. We check out the incriminating timepieces that have helped Columbo crack the case, and spot a Rolex GMT-Master Root Beer, a LeCoultre Memovox Wrist Alarm, and more.

By Steven Rogers

Last week in our Unlikely Watch Collector series, we shone a light on none other than TV super sleuth Columbo . While Columbo is pretty discreet about his own horological choices, he is definitely watchful in terms of the timepieces others are packing: Forget about watch collecting as we know it – Columbo mentally collects watches and clocks as clues!

The Carefully Timed Murder

Many of the murders in Columbo are elaborately planned and meticulously executed within an ultra-tight timeframe. Columbo villains have used a Lucerne digital jump hour watch, a Casio MQ-24, a Hanhart chronograph, and a Timex Viscount 46560-3272 among other, less recognizable timekeepers, to ensure they are on track in carrying out their dastardly deed.

But the classiest timing instrument deployed by a Columbo murderer has to be the LeCoultre Automatic Memovox Wrist Alarm worn by Jack Cassidy’s devious illusionist The Great Santini in Now You See Him (1976).

Produced from 1956 to 1968 and featuring a Calibre 815, it has the characteristic double crown – one for winding and setting the alarm, the other for time-setting and winding – and also features a hammer rotor for automatic winding.

It might help The Great Santini to time his kill to perfection, but he fails to remove damning evidence left on a typewriter ribbon. Columbo duly catches him out.

Planting a Time Alibi in Someone’s Mind

Columbo usually smells a rat when suspects state the time of their whereabouts with ridiculous precision. Stuffy gadget guru Harold Van Wyck does exactly that in Playback (1976).

Having dispatched his meddling mother-in-law and manipulated CCTV footage to make it look like his crime occurs later, Harold heads off into the night ensuring everyone he encounters recalls precisely what time they’ve seen him.

He manages this by wowing them with his gold LED watch, which Harold says is made by his own company, Midas Electronics. In reality, this is National Semiconductor’s cheaper, unbranded riposte to Hamilton’s costly Pulsar, launched two years prior.

“I have this special watch. It prints out the numbers. It’s funny how you remember time when you see it printed,” says Harold to an impressed Columbo who reveals he has “seen those watches advertised.”

While Harold’s timings are difficult to contest, his shoddy video doctoring skills ultimately let him down, and Columbo nails him.

Changing the Watch Time as an Alibi

In Fade in to Murder (1976), William Shatner’s troubled TV star Ward Fowler invites gofer pal Mark (Bert Remsen) over to watch the ball game. Fowler makes Mark pass out by drugging his drink before heading out to bump off his blackmailing ex.

Upon returning, Fowler puts back the time on sleeping Mark’s watch to make it appear as though he has been out for the count for a matter of seconds, before using the ultra-futuristic technology that is a VCR to play back the football and fool Mark into believing no time has passed. When Mark finally hits the hay, Fowler resets his watch to the correct time.

Columbo gets suspicious when Mark later reveals his fancy watch, said to be in platinum, has lost time – he normally sets it five minutes ahead to be on top of his gofer duties. “A thousand-dollar watch doesn’t just lose five minutes over night,” says the detective, and he’s not wrong.

But the watch in question is, in real life, an inexpensive and rather ugly pebble-shaped “Electra” watch that was peddled by companies like Cordell and Hormilton (not Hamilton) back in the 1970s. You can even find Omega 25 Electra watches going round which are, likely, cheap fakes. The movements inside are believed to be pretty low grade, despite the proud “Unbreakable Mainspring” claim on the dial.

Fowler reckons his alibi is unbreakable too, but Columbo is able to nab him for the fingerprints he left on some bullets.

As an aside, it is Shatner who is actually wearing the most impressive watch in the room: The Captain Kirk actor wears a yellow-gold Movado Datron HS 360 to pair with his fetching beige and brown safari suits throughout the episode.

Breaking the Victim’s Watch to Fake the Time of Death

Smashing and stopping the victim’s watch to give a false impression of when the murder took place is a classic trick employed by Columbo killers, though the detective is usually savvy to it. Especially when the watch in question doesn’t match the rest of the victim’s attire, as is the case in Candidate for Crime (1973).

Wannabe senator Nelson Hayward (Jackie Cooper) decides to bump off his burly campaign manager Harry Stone (Ken Swofford) while making it look like a case of mistaken identity.

To trick police into believing the crime happened later than it did, he swaps Harry’s robust Seiko 6139 Speed Timer (yes, the same one Columbo wore in early episodes – it must have been doing the rounds in the props department) and straps a Lucerne dress watch on his corpse, smashing the watch to freeze the time to 9:20 p.m.

Columbo is puzzled that thickset Harry would wear a hard-wearing suit and sturdy shoes, but pair them with the flimsy Lucerne ticker.

Later, the lieutenant reveals to Hayward’s wife that he visited a jeweler to ask which type of watch would have the equivalent quality to Harry’s durable clothes. “The guy had an answer, I got it right here,” says Columbo before producing a Seiko 6139 Speed Timer from his pocket and clanging it against a parasol pole. “You can’t break it. It’s still ticking!” Columbo exclaims.

It seems Seiko’s reputation for reliability and sturdiness even holds sway in Columbo-land!

Realizing the Victim was Alive Later Than First Thought

In Old Fashioned Murder (1976), Columbo discovers a mysterious note found on slaughtered stooge Milton Shaeffer (Peter S. Feibleman) that says: “Turn twice right after midnight.”

On visiting the boutique where Schaeffer had earlier bought his fancy triple calendar chronograph, the policeman learns the note is actually instructions for correcting the date on his freshly-acquired watch.

Assuming the deceased Schaeffer had been diligent about keeping his calendar display current, then he must have still been alive after midnight – later than first thought – on the evening he was murdered because when his corpse was discovered, his watch showed May 1st, the correct date. This horological find leads Columbo to realize all is not what it seems.

The watch in question – featuring pump pushers and a white dial with solitary 12 o'clock Arabic numeral marker – appears to be powered by a Valjoux 72C movement. Looks-wise, it resembles a Heuer Carrera 12 Dato Ref. 2547, Rolex Ref. 6236 “Jean-Claude Killy,” or Gallet MultiChron Calendar.

Saying that, those had pin-operated pushers, one at 8 o’clock to advance the date and one at 10 o’clock to move the day and month forward, but some early Valjoux 72Cs did require their owner to move the hands forward to set the day.

Visiting the watch boutique doesn’t just help Columbo make inroads into his investigation – the freshly coiffured detective (he had previously paid a visit to Schaeffer’s hairdresser) learns how to set his own date watch properly too!

Hung by the Half-Hourly Chime of an Anniversary Clock

Columbo is a master of spotting details that seem out of place: an invitation card on a desk, the radio station selected on a car stereo, or the way a pair of shoe laces are tied. But sometimes it’s the absence of something which should be there that gives the inimitable cop the damning evidence he needs.

That’s the case in The Most Crucial Game (1972) when Robert Culp’s callous football team general manager Paul Hanlon claims he was in his stadium’s private box at 2: 30 p.m., the time when franchise owner Eric Wagner (Dean Stockwell) was bludgeoned in his mansion swimming pool.

The recording of Hanlon’s bugged phone call to Wagner – complete with crowd cheers and game commentary in the background – at that very moment seemingly provides him with an alibi.

Of course, Hanlon was nowhere near the stadium, having used a phone box next to Wagner’s residence and a transistor radio playing match commentary to craft the call, all while disguised rather comically as an ice-cream man.

In one of the series best “gotcha” moments, Columbo calls out Hanlon, demonstrating that if he really was in his private box, you would have heard on the call the half-hourly chime of the anniversary clock sitting pretty in his private box.

Still, a crestfallen Hanlon can take consolation from the fact he goes down a classy criminal: He’s wearing a yellow-gold Rolex GMT-Master 1675/8 Root Beer on a jubilee bracelet – likely Culp’s personal timekeeper since he sports the same gem in the two other Columbo episodes in which he plays a baddie.

Veritable “Time” Drama

Believe it or not, there are many more instances of clocks, watches and wristwear spotted or name checked in Columbo that we don’t have the space to explore here. There’s a snazzy pair of pager watches, a cheap “Le Sur” watch, and Roddy McDowall’s wall clock and gold wristwatches to name but a few examples.

So next time you happen upon an episode of Columbo, remember it’s not just a great “crime” drama, it’s a veritable “time” drama too!

And you can check out more Columbo goodness by visiting the Peacock Columbo channel on YouTube, the Columbophile blog for episode reviews, and Frank Columbo's Wristwatch page to see the lieutenant’s own varied wrist game.

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