The first line, and the thesis, of Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith is: 'There is no such thing as a perfect murder.' The film, The American Friend, was based on this novel. Its German director, Wim Wenders, moved the location from Fontainebleau to Hamburg, which becomes the handsome backdrop to a tale of deception and death.

The American Friend is set in 1976, a time of ludicrous haircuts and beige flares. The friend in question is Dennis Hopper, a kind of Midnight Euro-cowboy who is a small- time dealer in art forgeries and lives on the fringes of organised crime. He owes a favour to Gerard Blain, a caricature French crook, who asks him to find the ideal assassin.

Cut to Bruno Ganz, who plays a picture-framer suffering from a terminal illness. He is a portrait of innocence and decency, but his illness terrifies him and he dreads abandoning his wife and son. Hopper convinces him that his condition has deteriorated, and offers him a fortune in return for a murder or two.

Wenders's study of manipulation is compulsive viewing. He gives his characters an idiosyncratic perspective, and focuses on the city's most strident images. Through the camera, Hamburg looks startling. In real life, it is stunning.

SCENE 1: Elbchaussee 186 - Saulenvilla, an aloof and elegant mansion. Inside, Blain asks Hopper to ensnare an innocent to act as a contract killer. 'Someone who would look absolutely incapable of such a zing,' he murmurs, Clouseau-like, over an expensive billiard table in an extravagant room.

Saulenvilla is a neo-classical indulgence presiding over Elbchaussee, the avenue which sweeps along a ridge high above the river. The Elbe is the commercial and emotional lifeblood of Hamburg; even though the city is 80 miles inland, the broad, leaden waterway draws 40 ships a day to the docks. The most successful merchants built their homes along Elbchaussee.

High fences and fearsome gates prevent the location hunter inspecting this des res at close quarters, but you can get near enough to admire the elegant columns and see the passage which runs like a moat around the house. The first time Blain appears, he is almost shot by Hopper, hiding nervously in the passageway.

The first geographical fib in the film is the suggestion that you could survey the steely magnificence of the Elbe from the billiard room. What you see is a hedge, a road (along which, for the convenience of location hunters, bus 36 runs), and the house opposite. Even if you stood on tiptoe on the billiard table, you would be unable to see the river.

The real residents of this area are not American fraudsters but well-to-do Hamburgers, living in the best part of town. Footpaths thread from Elbchaussee down to the river, through parkland pleasingly free of German formality. A steep flight of steps (down which miscellaneous baddies tumble towards the end of the film) takes you to Ovelgonne, a tiny settlement built to house the harbour's pilots. It perches prettily on just the right side of twee, with several cafes serving freighter-sized meals.

SCENE 2: Lange Strasse 22, at the corner of Kleine Pinnes. Hopper makes his opening gambit to turn Ganz into a killer and a victim. Presumably the German film industry has arranged some sort of preservation order for the picture- framer's shop where Ganz carves out a living; Lange Strasse 40 is the only original building standing amid a bleak Eighties housing estate, a neat corner in an otherwise scruffy quarter of town.

The shop now sells hats, but in 1976 it was Bruno Ganz's workshop. He is a German Swiss, a tired-looking 34. He suffers from a rare and untreatable blood disease. Hopper plays upon Ganz's anxiety about the disease, and begins to sow the seeds of terror.

After their meeting in the shop, he writes to Ganz, 'I was shocked to hear your illness is worse' - the first lie of many to persuade Ganz of the imminence of his demise.

SCENE 3: U-bahn line 3, between St Pauli and Rodingsmarkt. Blain sets out the terms of the contract to Ganz, a man rapidly concluding he has nothing to lose but his life: 'I need one person eliminated, possibly two.' He offers DM250,000 ( pounds 100,000) for the task, and plays on Ganz's fears for his wife and son: 'Don't you want to leave them some money when you die?'

Wenders chooses the most dramatic segment of the underground railway as a backdrop for one of the more dramatic moments in the film. Shortly after leaving St Pauli, U-bahn line 3 bursts out of the hillside, turns sharp left to avoid plunging into the Elbe, and rattles imperiously along the waterside.

'I'm not a killer.'

'Good - that's just what we want.'

The dialogue diverts attention from one of the world's great stretches of urban railway, a magnificent sweep of maritime citydom.

It is at about this stage in the film that you realise no one seems to be enjoying themselves. Hamburg is the biggest and most entertaining city in western Germany, and has a quite preposterous number of hostelries where you can eat, drink, dance and sing. Ganz could have drowned his despair at any one of dozens of jolly pubs. Had he stayed on the U-bahn as far as the Hauptbahnhof, he could have called in at Max & Consorten (Spadenteich 7) - a rickety, tobacco-stained bar with large stoves and huge customers over-indulging in the solid fuel served up by the kitchen.

SCENE 4: the Elbtunnel. Ganz, driven by fear, sprints to his doctor - on the other side of the river - to demand new tests. Wenders is again economical with the geographical truth: the direction from which Ganz arrives at the Elbtunnel suggests he had indeed called in at the pub on his way from his workshop, though the narrative makes this unlikely.

Cinematic licence is justified, however, since Wenders has the imagination to use one of the century's most striking pieces of civil engineering. The Elbe is 1,000ft wide, and a bridge across it would impede the trade upon which Hamburg depends. So, in 1912, a tunnel was dug beneath the river. Not any old tunnel, but an audacious construction in which vehicles and pedestrians are lowered into a massive cavern. You walk into what looks like a railway station, then the floor falls away to reveal a cylindrical hole in the ground, 100ft across. In 1976 Ganz hurried down an escalator, every step echoing ominously; today he would have to wait for a lift.

The tunnel, which travels out from the cavern under the river, is the stuff of horror films: narrow, gloomy and oppressive. At the far end (a two- minute jog), the lift elevates you to a backdrop of bleakness. The film does not suggest where the doctor practises, but Ganz must have to jog a fair way to get beyond the desolation of decaying dockland.

Hamburg's docks may have seen better days, but they are still powerful. The original freeport (Freihafen) comprises a rank of austere warehouses towering over quaysides. One of them has been converted into a customs museum housing an entertaining collection of contraband: the samples of heroin, crack and Lebanese red are marked 'imitation', as are the fake Lacoste shirts.

A barrage of psychological and financial blackmail persuades Ganz to carry out the first killing, which takes place on the Paris Metro. The continuity supervisor clearly enjoyed a good lunch that day: the target is shown getting in to an empty first-class carriage which instantly turns into a crowded second-class scrum. At La Defense station, Ganz gets away with murder and it is not long before he is leaned upon to repeat the exercise.

Location hunters would find it hard to replicate his next assignment. It takes place on a Munich-to-Hamburg express, the like of which has since gone the way of the Berlin Wall. Ganz is to shoot a Mafia hoodlum, who inconveniently opens the door of the train lavatory just as the gun is being prepared. Hopper, the reliable American friend, shows up in time to help Ganz dispose of the villain out of the train door; and to help eject an over-inquisitive bodyguard shortly afterwards.

SCENE 5: the apartment block on the corner of Davidstrasse and St-Pauli-Hafenstrasse. In which Ganz tries (and fails) to explain to his wife why a home-loving picture-framer should suddenly start staying out for days at a time.

'You are using your illness to deceive me,' cries his wife (Lisa Kreuzer), astutely. For years Ganz had struggled to keep his family and an orange Volkswagen Beetle; suddenly he is rich, and crazy.

The apartment where Ganz first lied to his wife, then attacked her, is still standing, but its surroundings have changed dramatically. Seventeen years ago, the building stood isolated on a cobbled street close to the fish market. Now it is at the hub of a waterside redevelopment. Ganz could gaze down upon the Fish Market Hall (in the film, look for the Harwich-Hamburg ferry sneaking past in the background). The ferry port has moved down-river, and the fish dealers have been replaced by vendors of a dozen brands of beer and a hundred varieties of Wurst. On Sunday mornings, the whole frenetic business is enlivened by a rock band, which blasts out music while you munch.

The market operation has been moved outside, and the quay teems with stalls and shoppers. At nine in the morning, the traders collide with the dregs of Saturday night's excesses on the Reeperbahn. The cultural showdown takes place in the tiny, smoky Kapitans Eck bar, where breakfast fights for table space with beer.

The film's showdown begins when Hopper collects the outcast Ganz from the apartment and takes him back to the Saulenvilla. The Mafia are by now on the trail, but our anti- heroes outwit them. Ganz and Hopper follow the Elbe to the sea, where the fragility of their friendship is exposed. Ganz abandons Hopper, and heads back to Hamburg.

At dawn on an empty road, running alongside the river, bad blood finally kills Ganz. He dies at the wheel of his Volkswagen. Neither a perfect murder, nor a perfect death.


Getting there: British Airways, Lufthansa and United Airlines fly non-stop from Heathrow to Hamburg; BA also flies from Manchester, and Lufthansa from Glasgow. The lowest fare at present is pounds 125 return on BA (0345 222111); there is no advance purchase requirement, but you must stay one Saturday night.

Scandinavian Seaways (0255 240240) sails daily between Harwich and Hamburg; the voyage takes 20 hours. The lowest passenger fare is pounds 59 return.

Getting around: Hamburg has an excellent network of underground railways (U- bahn), suburban trains (S- bahn) and buses. The 'Hamburg Card' gives unlimited travel on all public transport, plus free admission to several museums. Prices range from DM10.80 ( pounds 4.30) for one person for one day, to DM34 ( pounds 14.60) for four people for three days.

Accommodation: the area around the Hauptbahnhof (main station) is the most promising. The Hotel Annenhof, at Lange Reihe 23 (243426) is comfortable and relatively cheap: DM50 ( pounds 20) single, DM72 ( pounds 29) double. At the Maritim Hotel Reichshof, opposite the station at Kirchenallee 34 (248330), a room costs DM250 ( pounds 100) but is vast; so is the champagne breakfast, included in the price.

Further information: the German National Tourist Office in London is at 65 Curzon Street, W1Y 7PE (071- 495 3990). Hamburg has several tourist offices, the most useful of which are at the airport (terminal 4, ground level) and the main station.

The dialling code from the UK to Hamburg is 010 49 40.

(Photographs omitted)