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An onscreen narrative reads: "In the heart of New York City, there is a steaming jungle of tenements inhabited by America's newest wave of immigrants, the Puerto Ricans. Surrounded by the great city, they are isolated within it. They call their little world the Barrio, the Spanish word for 'district.'" According to information in the MPAA/PCA file on the film in the AMPAS Library, Irving Shulman's novel was originally to have been produced by Mort Briskin for Morjay Productions, Inc., and released by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster bought the story from Irving Shulman in 1955. Canon Productions and Anne Productions, Inc., the film's copyright claimant, appear to be companies set up by Hecht-Hill-Lancaster specifically for this production.
A 1958 news item in Daily Variety stated that producer-writer Harry Kleiner completely revamped Shulman's "mid-depression novel about a Jewish family in Brooklyn." According to a October 12, 1958 article in Los Angeles Examiner, Kleiner spent two weeks in Spanish Harlem interviewing hundreds of locals on all aspects of life there. A Hollywood Reporter casting note indicates that Brad Dexter was in negotiations for a starring role. The producers borrowed John Saxon and Linda Cristal from Universal for the film. Although the Variety review noted that Cry Tough marked the screen's first attempt at depicting "second generation Puerto Ricans in Manhattan," most reviewers complained about the film's lack of realism. Cry Tough was television director Paul Stanley's first effort at theatrical filmmaking. The film also marked the first of two films made by producer Harry Kleiner under his Canon Productions banner.