In front of a huge movie screen in the semi-darkened American Film Institute Theater last evening, Dr. Burno Bettelheim, 77, legendary child psychologist and educator, gave a great performance.

The audience may have wondered what a man who says things like "Most movies disappoint me" was doing giving the first annual Patricia Wise Lecture, endowed by AFI to focus public attention on the moving image as an art form. But by the end of his talk there was no doubt as to why Bettelheim was chosen to deliver this hour-long lecture.

"Moving pictures give illusions which let us spy on the lives of others," said Bettelheim as he described the elaborate movie houses of his youth ("dream houses," he called them) in Vienna.

"That rang a bell," said AFI trustee Ina Ginsburg at the reception in the AFI offices upstairs after the lecture. "I found out we both grew up in Vienna, and I shared a lot of his thoughts this evening," she said.

Bettelheim had ended his talk much as Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress, who introduced him, had hoped he would. He encouraged the 175 film lovers in the audience to nurture "the most authentic American art form and hope it will meet the challenge of becoming the true art of our age."

At the reception the deep thoughts stirred up by Bettelheim in his lecture led the conversations away from the usual film party see-you-on-the-Coast or did-you-catch-so-and-so's-new-flick syndromes.

"It's a belief I share that film at its best is inspiring and uplifting and that's as Dr. Bettelheim spoke of it," said AFI chairman George Stevens.

Jean Firstenberg, director of AFI, was equally elated with the choice of Bettelheim as the first speaker for the annual lecture that will bring expertise from other disciplines to TV and films. Said Firstenberg, "This evening was something to talk about and then go home and reflect on."