Born in a noble and wealthy family (one of the richest of northern Italy) in Milan, at the age of 30 he went to Paris, and began his career as Jean Renoir's assistant in 1936, due to the intercession of the common friend Coco Chanel, in Une partie de campagne. After a short tour to the U.S., where he visited Hollywood, he was back in Italy to act as Renoir's assistant again for La Tosca (1939), a production that was interrupted and later completed by German director Karl Koch because of the war.
Together with Roberto Rossellini, Visconti joined the salotto of Vittorio Mussolini (the son of Benito, at the time the national arbitrator for cinema and other arts) and here presumably met also Federico Fellini. With Gianni Puccini, Antonio Pietrangeli and Giuseppe De Santis he wrote the screenplay of his first film as a director: Ossessione (Obsession) (1943), a neorealist movie.
Visconti was also a celebrated theatre director. During the years 1946-1960 he directed many performances of the Rina Morelli -Paolo Stoppa Company, with Vittorio Gassmann, and several operas, including a famous revival of Donizetti's Anna Bolena at La Scala in 1957 with Maria Callas.
He died in Rome at age 69.
- Ossessione (1943) (based on James M. Cain's 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice)
- Giorni di Gloria (1945)
- La Terra trema (1950)
- Bellissima (1951)
- Senso (Livia) (1954)
- Le notti bianche (White Nights) (1957)
- Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers) (1960)
- Boccaccio '70 (1961) (based on Boccaccio's Decamerone)
- Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963) (based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel)
- Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa (Sandra of a Thousand Delights) (1965)
- Lo Straniero (1967)
- La caduta degli dei (The Damned) (1969)
- Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice) (1971) (based on Thomas Mann's novel)
- Ludwig (1972)
- Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece) (1974)
- L'Innocente (The Innocent) (1976)