NEW YORK - From the first moments, when the star-circled mountain in the Paramount Pictures logo fades into a similarly shaped, fog-shrouded Andean peak, where who knows what awful things are about to happen, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' is off and running at a breakneck pace that simply won't stop until the final shot, an ironic epilogue that recalls nothing less than ''Citizen Kane.'' That, however, is the only high-toned reference in a movie that otherwise devotes itself exclusively to the glorious days of the B-picture.
To get to the point immediately, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' is one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made. It is an homage to old-time movie serials and back-lot cheapies that transcends its inspirations to become, in effect, the movie we saw in our imaginations as we watched, say, Buster Crabbe in ''Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars'' or in Sam Katzman's ''Jungle Jim'' movies.
The film is the result of the particularly happy collaboration between Steven Spielberg, its director, and George Lucas, who is one of its executive producers and who, with Philip Kaufman, wrote the original story on which Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay is based.
As Lucas's ''Star Wars'' helped itself to all sorts of myths, folk tales and characters from children's fiction and fused them into a work of high originality, and as Spielberg's ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind'' made sweetly benign a kind of science-fiction film that had turned paranoid, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' refines its tacky source materials into a movie that evokes memories of movie-going of an earlier era but that possesses its own, far more rare sensibility.
The film is about Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), a two-fisted professor of archaeology with a knack for landing in tight situations in some of the earth's more exotic corners, and his sometimes girlfriend Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of a world-famous archeologist and who, when we first meet her, is running a lowdown bar in remotest Nepal. Just how Marion has come to be running a gin mill in Nepal is never explained, but ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' is great fun as much for the things it explains as for the explanations it withholds.
The time is 1936, which not only attaches ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' to the films it remembers but also makes possible its fondly lunatic plot, which is about the attempts of Indiana Jones and Marion, at the behest of the United States government, to find the lost Ark of the Covenant before a team of Nazi archeologists can lay their hands on it.
Hitler, who is described as being obsessed with the occult, is hellbent on finding the Ark, which once contained the Ten Commandments as handed down to Moses on their originally inscribed tablets. The Ark is reported variously (1) to confer magical powers on the person who possesses it, (2) to be ''something that man was not meant to disturb,'' being ''not of this world'' and, more picturesquely, (3) as ''a radio for speaking to God.'' No wonder Indiana and Marion risk life and limb to prevent the Ark from finding its way to Berlin!
After their initial reconciliation in Nepal, following Indiana's narrow escape from death in the Andes, Indiana and Marion fly on to Egypt where there is every reason to believe the Nazis are about to uncover the Ark in a long-buried temple called the Well of Souls. Even before they reach the actual dig, however, there are fearsome obstacles to be overcome in Cairo, including attempted assassinations, a successful kidnapping and a fate worse than death for Marion at the hands of a renegade French archaeologist named Belloq (Paul Freeman).
More of the plot you should not know, though it gives nothing away to reveal that Indiana and Marion, either singly or together, must face such tests of their endurance as confinement in an ancient tomb with thousands of asps and cobras, an attack by poisoned darts, a plate of poisoned dates, torture with a red-hot poker, being tied up in a vehicle that explodes before our very eyes and a superchase in which Indiana, on horseback, attempts to catch a Nazi truck convoy carrying the newly found lost Ark to Cairo for transshipment to Berlin.
The film's climax is almost as dazzling a display as the one that brings ''Close Encounters'' to its climax.
Harrison and Miss Allen are an endearingly resilient, resourceful couple, he with his square jaw, his eyes that can apparently see out of the back of his head and his ever-present fedora, and she with her Brooke Adams-Margot Kidder beauty, her ability to outdrink, shot glass for shot glass, Nepal's toughest barflies, her ever-ready sarcasm and her ability to screech without losing her poise.
Spielberg has also managed to make a movie that looks like a billion dollars (it was filmed in, among other places, Tunisia, France, England and Hawaii) yet still suggests the sort of production shortcuts we associate with old B-movies. The Cairo we see on the screen is obviously a North African city but, also obviously, it's not Cairo. There's not a pyramid in sight. My one quibble with Spielberg is that he didn't insert a familiar, preferably unmatching stock shot of Cairo into the scene to make sure we got the point. I suppose, we can't have everything.
''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' which has been rated PG (''Parental Guidance Suggested''), includes virtually nonstop action that involves a lot of violence, but this is less horrifying than scary in a most pleasurable way.