June 20, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

A maverick auteur of the silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim was notorious for burning through studio money in maniacal pursuit of celluloid perfection. And when his extravagance was too much (which was often), most of his films were taken away and whittled down. Yet even in its abridged form, his work retains a gutsy modernity. ”Blind Husbands,” about a romantic triangle, has charged moments of erotic longing. ”Foolish Wives” is novelistically rich. In ”Queen Kelly,” Gloria Swanson goes from convent innocent to brothel bride in what was intended as another lengthy masterwork. Unfortunately, Swanson, also the producer, fired von Stroheim and aborted the production when she became uneasy with the film’s costliness and gleeful depravity. That he was reunited with Swanson as Max, Norma Desmond’s former director, in ”Sunset Boulevard” was irony at its most delicious. ”Husbands”: B; ”Wives”: B+; ”Kelly”: A-

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