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Charles Bronson, Sacred Monster

“A man of few words” is how they describe action icon Charles Bronson, even in the film (justifiably) considered to contain his finest performance: Walter Hill’s preternaturally assured debut, Hard Times (1975), the tale of a boxer (Bronson) and his manager (James Coburn) trying to survive the Depression and remain friends. It may also be the most nuanced exploration of Bronson’s screen persona as taciturn loner. Like Clint Eastwood’s, Bronson’s fame was forged in Europe’s flourishing genre cinema of the 1960s, with spaghetti-Western god Sergio Leone presiding directorially over his crucial parts. Both actors then became superstars back home with a vigilante vengeance: Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971), Bronson in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974). But as Eastwood developed his similarly masklike acting style to deconstructive purposes on the way to auteurship, Bronson went workmanlike down the revenge action (non-)performance path, always keeping the audience at a leathery remove. Coming late to stardom after decades of supporting work, Bronson (born Charles Buchinsky in 1921 to poor Lithuanian immigrants) was surely entitled to cash his check. But behind his craggy, inscrutable features, one occasionally felt a deeper yearning: After all, this World War II vet had used his GI Bill to study the arts. This hidden side may be glimpsed via the Cinefamily series “Charles Bronson: The Sacred Monster” (per his French moniker, “Le Sacré Monstre”): The Mechanic (1973), a superior, exceedingly well-crafted Winner vehicle, elevates Bronson’s perfectionist hit man to existential status as he confronts apprentice Jan-Michael Vincent; some similar notes are struck in Rider on the Rain (1969), a minor, if sufficient, example of the cool psychological thrillers French director René Clément (Purple Noon) specialized in. But the true gem here is The Family (1970), by under-appreciated genre genius Sergio Sollima, fresh from his pronouncedly political Italo-Western masterpieces Face to Face and Run, Man, Run: Featuring one of Ennio Morricone’s killer themes and a handful of awesome assassination set pieces, it is Sollima’s Point Blank (1967), handing Bronson the Lee Marvin role of renegade gangster individualist taking on the syndicate, while adding a characteristic dash of class consciousness to the mix. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Fridays at 10:30 p.m., thru March 28. www.silentmovietheatre.com)