I’ve gradually tried to introduce my kids to various classic films. I don’t want them just growing up watching “Kung Fu Panda” all the time. One of the film’s we watched together was “West Side Story,” it’s a Best Picture winner, after all. The original show first hit Broadway in 1957, the movie came in 61. Of course, the Puerto Rican culture in New York played a major part in the story…so it’s probably fair to say that today’s movie, released in 1959, and also focusing on Puerto Rican immigrants in the barrio, was probably influenced somewhat by the stage hit. Featuring the one and only John Saxon, it’s “Cry Tough.”
After a year in prison, Miguel Estrada (Saxon) returns to his Spanish Harlem home. At first, Miguel seems determined not to fall back into the less than legal activities that landed him behind bars. Though gang leader Carlos Mendoza (Harry Townes) is anxious to have Miguel’s help crushing the rival gang of Juan Cortez (Joe De Santis), he refuses. Despite wanting to fly straight, Miguel is not exactly welcomed with open arms back home either. His “papa” (Joseph Calleia) feels his son has shamed the family and is almost unwilling to even let him in the house.
Miguel ends up going to work at a laundry owned by Cortez. One of the other employees is Emilio (Paul Clarke), who asks Miguel for permission to marry his sister, but Emilio has issues, too. It turns out that the laundry is actually a front for Cortez’ illegal activities and Emilio has been paid by Mendoza to cause a boiler explosion. This prompts Miguel to confront Mendoza, telling him to lay off of Emilio. On the way out of the club, Miguel becomes mesmerized by the “hostess” Sarita (Linda Cristal)
Miguel and Sarita begin to spend more time together, especially when she nurses him back to health after a severe beating. Trouble brews, though, when Miguel learns that she is an illegal immigrant from Cuba and that immigration officers are looking for her. When she is captured, Miguel turns to Mendoza for help with her release. The two end up marrying, but in time Sarita suddenly leaves Miguel without a trace. Now desperate to find her, Miguel turns to Mendoza for help again and willingly goes to work for the gangster in exchange.
“Cry Tough” is a gritty and hard-hitting drama that really caught me off-guard. I admit, as the film began it took me a little bit of time to adjust to John Saxon as a Puerto Rican, but it doesn’t take long for him to settle in and in the end he handles the role with his usual coolness. As if that wasn’t enough, he is paired with the relentlessly sultry performance of Linda Cristal. Steamy doesn’t even begin to describe the chemistry between these two and it is the major driving force behind this film.
The approach to both the violence and the sensuality of this film almost has a pre-code feel to it. This was made at a time when nudity was not in the cards, but the filmmakers manage to get away with as much as they can. One scene in particular features Cristal in a black sheer nightgown that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. How they got away with it in 1959 is beyond me.
Ultimately, though, what makes the film work is that it’s got a great story. It’s not a pleasant story, I admit. The idea of being trapped in an environment that lures even those who try to do the right thing into a world of crime is a tough subject matter and one that continues to be used in films today. “Cry Tough” is a film that is exactly what its title says it is…tough.