A man with a crutch hobbles down an alley in a city on a rainy night. He says something in Latin and Greek. He’s shot–his name is Miles–and he dies.
If the scene seems familiar, it could be because it borrows a lot from a scene the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. Miles is Miles Archer, the short-lived detective partner of Sam Spade. (For a seven-minute recap of the film, see this).
But there’s a lot of T. S. Eliot here too. “Rats Alley” is a place mentioned on line 115 of the poem, “Where the dead men lost their bones.” The passage in Latin and Greek in the middle of the page refers to the epigram to “The Waste Land,” which is also a quotation in Latin and Greek. What does Rowson’s quote mean? In his notes, he says this is “Varus quoted by Servius in his note to Virgil, Eclogues, vi, 42. You can look that up if you like, but I don’t think it’s going to help you much.
Eliot also provided notes for his poem, he didn’t bother to annotate his opening quotation. Most editions will tell you that the quotation is from Patronius’ Satyricon, and is often translated as:
“For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’, she replied, ‘I want to die’ .” This makes some sense of the gunman saying “Sure thing Miles!” and shooting away…
But reading Eliot’s version of the poem, you wouldn’t know what the quotation was about, unless you knew your Patronius. It brings us to an important point about this poem — it’s not about making things easy for you. It gives you pieces, fragments, “a heap of broken images,” as we’re about to read, and isn’t going to give you much help in putting them together.
This is, perhaps, the critical connection to film noir and Chandler. We are given fragments, almost designed to frustrate you making sense out of them. By using these film noir elements, Rowson is giving us a language, a set of familiar images of detectives and rainy nights, with which we can begin to approach Eliot’s poem. Petronius’s sibyl, at the beginning of Eliot’s poem, has seen everything in life and wants to die. Rowson gives us that same message with his film noir vocabulary. It’s not an adaptation of the poem exactly, more a kind of translation into a visual language.
This isn’t even to mention the references beyond Chandler and Eliot that you’ll find cramming every corner of Rowson’s work. The panel in which Miles is shot refers to a painting by Francisco Goya called the Third of May, 1808, which commemorates Spanish resistance to Napoleonic forces. The bottom panel riffs of an 1856 painting by Henry Wallis, “The Death of Chatterton.”
And, if you’ve ever seen the musical *Cats*, you might notice that one of the rats beginning to sniff at Miles’s corpse is clutching a playbill for Eliot’s *Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats*, the source for Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical.