The picture ended in a freeze-frame, the credits began crawling up the TV screen, and everybody sat there looking at nothing.

For the three actors, it was the first sight of the brilliant 22-minute film they had just made from Antoine de Saint Exupery's "Night Flight." They had been brought here for the premiere yesterday and were getting a quick preview in a suite at the Fairfax Hotel.

The film airs Friday at 8:30 p.m. on Channel 7 and Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 9.

"I'd have to see it again," muttered veteran star Trevor Howard. "I want to see it on the big screen."

"It's been cut still further, hasn't it," said Bo svenson, and the director, Desmond Davis, nodded. They were all still staring at the blank screen. "It was 36 minutes and we had to get it down to 22," he said.

Celine Lomez, the 25-year-old Canadian find who plays Svenson's wife in the film, was smiling. "Did it work?" she asked the others unnecessarily.

Of course it worked. It was wonderful. Veryone was smiling now. Somebody said he would never have believed Saint Exupergy could be translated into a film. (The author himself wouldn't have believed it, either. He so hated a 1930s movie made of the book with Spencer Tracy that he swore he would never allow another one. His heirs took nine months to convince.)

Svenson, who appeared in "The Great Waldo Pepper" and two of the "Walking Tall" movies, noted that an early scene establishing conflict between himself, as a mail-plane pilot, and Howard, as his hare-bitten boss, had been cut.

It didn't really seem to matter, however, for the conflict is immediately apparent anyway in this tightly edited story of love and duty. The duty is the dangerous business of flying by night ovewr the Argentine mountains in 1930, long before radar. The love is the touching relationship between Svenson and Lomz as newlyweds.

Many a TV director could take lessons from the graceful economy with which BBC prizewinner Desmond Davis manages not only to excite us but to move us in 22 minutes.

The secene that pleased everyone most was a remarkable duet of voiced thoughts: Howard and Lomez are intercut as they speak their fears and wishes, so that we see they are curiously united even in their implacable opposition to each other.

"I thought I'd played the part with more steel," Howard emarked later. "The character comes over much kinder than I'd intended. But such a lot has been cut. There's that place where Bo is rude to me...."

He liked the flying shots, A rare Curtiss Fledgling biplane was used, and Svenson piloted it himself in some sequences.

Lomez had no complaints. "It's lovely working with Trevor," she said. "Like a waltz with a great partner. He carries you."

"Nonsense," rumbled Howard.

He does in fact have a reputation for saving bad ictures -- though he certainly didn't have to this time. Once a romantic lead in the celebrated "Brief Encounter," about which he is extremely tired of hearing, has played everything from detectives to beachcombers to Captain Bligh.

The variety is astonishing: "The Third Man," "Outcast of the Islands," "Ryan's Daughter," three Graham Greene pictures, an Oscar nominee role in "Sons and Lovers," more recently the Marty Feldman spoof of "Beau Geste," "Superman" and next spring a remake of "the Hurricane."

He and his wife, actress Helen Mary Cherry, had flown in the day before from London all will be returning to New York today. The whole group was suffering from jet lag, and when Howard was reminded he had a television talk-show date in a few minutes, he brushed back his wavy, reddish hair and glared.

The heat of the hotel room wasn't helping, especially since he wore the kind of thick Harris-tweed suit that keeps Britons from rain, snow and gale winds. He enjoyed gazing at the ice-clogged Potomac from his Watergate quarters.

"We shot the picture in Montreal. I don't know how we got away without it snowing."

Ever since "Charge of the Light Brigade," the 62-year-old Howard has been linked with the sort of Last Outpost of Empire role that the late C. Aubrey Smith made famous. He doesn't mind. "You take the roles you are offered," he said.

He hasn't even seen "Beau Geste," which he more or less rescued with his outrageous send-up of the type.

Lomez was smiling again. She is about to be launched on American TV with "Night Flight," and soon the Canadian film "The Silent Partner," with her and Elliot Gould and Christipher Plummer, will be released here, and after that, judging from her Canadian notices, there will be no stopping her. It is a charming smile.