Manhattan boulevard

Cinema - William Cook goes in search of Woody Allen's New York and discovers a European fantasy

If George W Bush wants to repair America's reputation with Britain, he should stay home and send Woody Allen over here instead. No American has done more than Allen to make us love America, and he's done it by creating a Eurocentric version of our favourite American city. He is perhaps the only film-maker to unite populist Stateside humour with the European high art of Bergman or Fellini. No wonder his official biographer, Eric Lax, called his influences "an amalgam of old Europe and New York".

Old Europe has returned the compliment. Allen is lionised on this side of the pond, both in Britain and on the Continent (especially in France, where his 1990 movie, Alice, grossed more than it did in America). No doubt about it, Europe adores Woody Allen. But before we decide that Americans are our kindred spirits after all, it's worth remembering that the landscape of his films is really an immaculate illusion.

Woody Allen's New York is the bohemian neverland where every British liberal dreams of living - a nirvana for free-loving artists and intellectuals, with an arthouse cinema or independent bookstore on every block. "I constantly run into Europeans whose only sense of New York comes from Manhattan and Annie Hall," revealed Allen in the 1980s. "If that's what they're expecting to find, I guess they're disappointed." Like every fictitious locale, from Hardy's Wessex to Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, Allen's New York is a fantasy - the meticulous stage set of a modern myth.

Visitors to New York usually confine their travels to Manhattan. But Allen's characters inhabit an even smaller space - more like a medieval city state than a contemporary metropolis and possible to cross on foot. North of SoHo, south of Harlem, its western border is Broadway and its centre is the exclusive Upper East Side, what Allen once called the elegant, Cole Porter part of New York. "I couldn't live on the West Side," he told the journalist Alfred Bester. "I have to be on the East Side, in the mid-70s, just about ten blocks away from the mainstream." Ten blocks from the mainstream - it's not a bad metaphor for his work.

For his British fans, Allen's fondness for the Upper East Side can be a rude awakening, a bit like discovering that Mike Leigh lives in Mayfair, or Ken Loach hangs out in Belgravia. It also shows we're inclined to sentimentalise Allen's neurotic canon. For all their right-on attitudes, his characters are only rebels when compared with the Wall Street brokers who surround them, and Allen's perspective is that of a Jewish intruder in an affluent Wasp ghetto. The sumptuous Cafe Carlyle, where he plays the clarinet every Monday night with his long-standing trad jazz band, the New Orleans Funeral and Ragtime Orchestra, is pure Bonfire of the Vanities. The Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue inevitably crops up as a location in Manhattan - like Bond Street crossed with the Champs Elysees, only posher.

There was nothing privileged about Allen's roots. Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, he didn't even visit Manhattan until he was six - but from then on, he yearned to live there. As a teenager, he devoured movies, variety and burlesque in the streets around Times Square, where today one "gentleman's club" has the wonderfully (if unwittingly) Allenesque moniker, Mixed Emotions.

Here on Broadway, his real and imagined worlds overlap. The Morosco theatre, where he premiered his early play, Don't Drink the Water, resurfaced in Radio Days and Bullets Over Broadway. The Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue, where Allen often ate, and set his vaudeville elegy, Broadway Danny Rose, still retains a flavour of that lost world. The historic Radio City Music Hall, where Play It Again Sam first ran, appears in the panoramic overture of Manhattan. Yet unlike his English peers, Allen doesn't wallow in slushy nostalgia for the theatre. Tellingly, the stage he's described with greatest passion is Madison Square Garden - home of his beloved basketball team, the New York Knicks. As he wrote in the New Yorker: "This is everything the theatre should be and isn't."

In the Dakota Building, on the Upper West Side, art and autobiography collide again. This ornate gothic pile, once inhabited by the horror icon Boris Karloff, is where Allen shot Hannah and Her Sisters, in the apartment of his sometime partner Mia Farrow. This is also where Farrow filmed Rosemary's Baby (and John Lennon lived and died here). Allen's home on the other side of the park is on smarter, straighter Fifth Avenue. Aptly for a man who seems most comfortable in the hinterland of fiction, Allen's films provide far better photo opportunities than his life. As another of Allen's biographers, John Baxter, observes, sophisticated New York landmarks like the Museum of Modern Art (or the Lincoln Center) are important supporting players in Allen's casts. Even the shops in his films tend to be resolutely upmarket - Bloomingdale's (not Macy's) and FAO Schwarz (New York's equivalent of Hamleys), both on the East Side.

On Second Avenue is Elaine's, the chic yet homely restaurant where Allen met Mia Farrow, and set the opening scene of his hometown homage, Manhattan. The atmosphere is intimate and cosy, but the clientele is well heeled (with an impressive cast of famous guests, such as Michael Caine). There's a cheaper souvenir on Sutton Place, where Allen and Diane Keaton watched the sun rise over the Queensboro Bridge - a seminal image that doubled as the billboard poster for Manhattan. "I love this city," confides Allen, as they drink in this moment together.

Sutton Square is charming - a tidy terrace of handsome townhouses, ending in a tiny but lovingly cultivated garden. However, seeing the view for real - the lonely highrise blocks over the East River, the endless stream of commuter traffic pouring across the monolithic bridge above, and the cold dark water below - what's most striking is how Allen has turned this gigantic, grimy netherworld into somewhere so Parisian. From 1992, Allen's films premiered in Paris. He and Soon-Yi spent their honeymoon there. Everyone Says I Love You, his biggest hit since Hannah and Her Sisters, was mainly filmed there, too.

"New York was his town," says Allen's voice-over, in Manhattan. "And it always would be." But what makes Allen's films so appealing to European palates is that the Manhattan of his movies is nothing like New York. In a year when certain "patriotic" Americans have taken to calling French fries "Freedom Fries", it is a delicious irony that Europe's favourite American film-maker is a native New Yorker who somehow transformed his hometown into an arrondissement on the Rive Gauche.