NEW YORK — New Directors/New Films is cosponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, a leading force in bringing new and rediscovered films to American moviegoers. Among the current attractions at its Walter Reade Theater is ''Blood of a Poet: The Cinema According to Sam Peckinpah,'' the first New York retrospective of this filmmaker's controversial career. The program includes such avidly debated works as ''The Wild Bunch,'' in an unexpurgated version also released to theaters by Warner Bros. this month, and ''Straw Dogs,'' perhaps his most hotly debated study of vengeance and violence.
What's often forgotten is that Peckinpah had a romantic and even sensitive streak beneath his rambunctious veneer. While this was visible in some of his major films -- the early ''Ride the High Country'' is a good example -- it shows most strongly in his work for network television, where tastefulness was official policy. Episodes for ''The Westerner'' and ''The Dick Powell Theater,'' made in the early 1960s, and ''The Rifleman,'' made in the late '50s, have moments of rare charm as well as high-energy performances by the likes of Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, members of Peckinpah's regular acting troupe. Especially winning is his dramatization of ''Noon Wine,'' the Katherine Anne Porter novella, starring Jason Robards as a well-meaning man thrown astray by his bad temper.
Peckinpah could be a gentle poet as well as a rowdy one, when he wanted to, and it's nice to be reminded of that frequently forgotten fact about an unquestionably important filmmaker.