In retrospect Audrey Hepburn's movie career takes on a curiously appropriate configuration. Her credits look spare but classy, as attractively streamlined as the actress herself.

The American Film Institute Theater has begun a series devoted to Hepburn that will run through Feb. 22. Reviewing her credits, it comes as a surprise to realize how small the backlog is: 17 starring vehicles. The AFI has everything but "The Unforgiven" and "Paris When It Sizzles," neither a major loss. She sustained a maximum of appeal on a minimum of vehicles.

The attributes that made her distinctive and refreshing in her first American film, "Roman Holiday," hadn't diminished when she decided to retire after the release of "Two for the Road" and "Wait Until Dark" 14 years later. The radiance she projected in her 20s seemed even more refined and satisfying in her 30s.

She was an exquisite camera subject in "Roman Holiday," "War and Peace" and "Funny Face," but she looks even lovelier in "Breakfast at Tiffany's, "Charade," "My Fair Lady" and "Two for the Road."

Hepburn had played bit or supporting roles in several European movies, including the memorable English comedies "Laughter in Paradise" and "The Lavender Hill Mob," before William Wyler tested her and cast her as the runaway princess in "Roman Holiday," which was released in 1953 and made Hepburn an immediate box-office success, critical favorite and Academy Award winner.

Her slimness and auro of good breeding came as a sensation at the time, when the most publicized woman star was Marilyn Monroe and dumb blondes were definitely in.

Hepburn's beautifully emaciated physique was partly the result of wartime malnutrition, but she was certainly well-bred. Her father was an Irish businessman, Joseph Anthony Hepburn-Ruston, who became an associate of Sir Oswald Mosley in the British Union of Fascists. Her mother was a Dutch noblewoman, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra.

Hepburn was born in Brussels in 1929 and sent to her first English private school at the age of 4. Her parents were divorced when she was 6, but she remained at school in England until 1939, when her parents came to the curious conclusion that she might be safer residing with her mother in Arnhem. As a result, Hepburn spent the next five years growing up under the Nazi occupation and hovering on the edge of starvation.

The Germans executed an uncle and cousin who were active in the resistance, and her mother's home was totally destroyed during the battle of Arnhem in September of 1944, the battle recreated in "A Bridge Too Far."

During the war Hepburn developed a passion for ballet and pursued a dancing career diligently for many years. She worked as chorus girl and cabaret performer in London before appearing in films. Her legendary big break came in 1951 when she was playing a minor role in a movie shooting in Monte Carlo and Colette, struck by her appearance, suggested her for a Broadway production of "Gigi."

She got the role, the play was a hit, and Paramount signed her for "Roman Holiday," which was filmed in the summer of 1952 while the "Gigi" company was on Holiday.

In an interview with Ezra Goodman, the Hollywood correspondent for Time, Billy Wilder described Hepbury's immediat* e impact on the movie public and business shortly before he directed her first movie shot in Hollywood. "Sabrina," a romantic comedy derived from a Broadway trifle. "Here is class," Wilder said, somebody who went to school, can spell and possibly play the piano. The other class girl is Katherine Hepburn. There is nobody else. Just a lot of drive-in waitresses off to the races, wriggling their behinds at the 3-D camera.

"She's like a salmon swimming upstream. She can do it with very small bozooms. Titism has taken over this country. This girl single-handed may make bozooms a thing of the past. The director will not have to invent shots where a girl leans way forward for a glass of scotch and soda."

I can't recall when I first saw Hepburn's moving image. It was probably on the telecast of the 1953 Academy Awards ceremony, where she accepted her Oscar for "Roman Holiday" and created a particularly charming impression by appearing in her makeup for "Ondine," which was playing on Broadway at the time.

I was delighted by Hepburn in "Roman Holiday," and disappointed by the movie, which seemed pretty sluggish going for a romantic comedy, keyed to the acting rhythms of Gregory Peck rather than the fresh vibrations being produced by Hepburn.

Still, the vibrations were authentic and pleasing. Wyler knew how to exploit her refined beauty and open, affectionate temperature for the camera. He was astute enough to let her bloom with photogenic discretion, trusting that her radiance would gradually envelop the audience.

Hepburn was always a star in American films, and there was singular strength of character behind her exquisite appearance right from the beginning, another affinity she shares with Katharine Hepburn. Although her characters were sometimes saddened or panicked, they were never helpless, never crushed, never given to languishing away from heartbreak or self pity.

The comeback film "Robin and Marian" was in part a bitter disappointment because screenwriter James Goldman violated the resilience and survival power that had always lurked behind her fragility. He wanted something maudlin, a reprise of the Eleanor of Aquitaine that a shaky Katharine Hepburn embodied in his "Lion in Winter."

It was more typical to observe Audrey Hepburn opening up than folding up. She was particularly adept at opening up to the prospect of love. This responsiveness made her a supremely attractive leading lady. She never seemed self-centered, defensive or falsely submissive in her interplay with men. On the contrary, they seemed to fascinate and amuse her.

For example, in Fred Zinnemann's splendid film version of "The Nun's Story," which proved to Hepburn's best dramatic vehicle, her character is compelled by her religious vows to resist that attraction she feels for a doctor played by Peter Finch. Since the resistance isn't natural, it becomes a touching source of conflict, illustrating her character's fundamental uncertainty about her commitment to a religious vocation. Although no young actress has ever looked more beautiful in a nun's habit, not even Ingrid Bergman, Hepburn also possessed the ideal temperament and emotional range for conveying Sister Luke's doubts about herself.

I recall vividly when Hepburn became a surpassing object of delight to many of us. It occurred when "Breakfast at Tiffany's" opened at a theater in Berkeley in 1961, and several college friends and I were smitten into a week-long trance. We went the first night, and the next, and the next, and the next, over-indulging the pleasure we derived from her provocatively tarnished and slighty yet rapturously beautiful impersonation of Holly Golightly.

"The Children's Hour" brought us down the following year, and in retrospect it seems a dreadful waste to have squandered both Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine on such an outmoded script at that point in their careers. We were off on a second jag when Stanley Donen's "Charade" opened in 1963. It was a very heady entertainment at the time, and I trust that it's held up. Peter Stone contributed a clever script, elegantly directed by Donen, but the star chemistry of Hepburn and Cary Grant was the principal attraction, and they were an enourmously satisfying match.

Hepburn's face isn't classicly beautiful, but it seems to have an exceptional expressive affinity for the camera. Like many film stars, she seems to have large features interestingly arranged on a small facial surface.

Her eyes are large and clear. They don't wander or glaze over. She meets the eyes of other performers and the eye of the camera squarely, suggesting a personality that is expectant, considerate and forthright. Her voice is a subtle romantic asset: soft, melodious and vaguely accented, with a distinctive lilt when she's amused or laughing and an equally distinctive catch when she's pretending to be frightened or startled.

Naturally there had never been anyone quite like her before. When she first made an impact in plays and films, reviewers were reaching all the way back for Maude Adams, Jeanne Eagles and Lillian Gish to find comparisons. It's a shame that there's none younger to compare her with now.