Released towards the end of the wave of so-called "social problem films" that spanned the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Violent Playground was directed by one of the genre's most prolific practitioners, Basil Dearden. Although the film initially comes across as a British response to the alarmist, hugely successful teen melodrama The Blackboard Jungle (US, 1955), James Kennaway's script was inspired by an actual experiment that was carried out in Liverpool in 1949.
There, a small number of policemen were rebranded Juvenile Liaison Officers and given specific responsibilities to familiarise themselves with local youth crime from the incidents themselves down to the root causes (a theory that anticipated the Labour Party's "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" approach unveiled over forty years later). Stanley Baker is the hard-nosed detective pursuing a fruitless arson case, whose reluctance at being reassigned to work with children is palpable. However, he rises to the challenge, especially when he encounters the Murphy family, whose twins Mary and Patrick have been shoplifting, and whose older sister Cathie (Anne Haywood) becomes his co-star in a distracting romantic subplot.
But it's their brother Johnny (David McCallum) who provides the most fuel for sociological thought. Clearly disturbed, and overly influenced by American teen-rebel role models and rock'n'roll, the climactic scene in which he holds a classroom of terrified pupils hostage at gunpoint uncomfortably anticipates such later incidents as the Dunblane (1995) and Columbine (1999) school massacres. Future star McCallum (who had already appeared alongside Baker in the previous year's Hell Drivers, d. Cy Endfield) gives by far the film's most charismatic performance, though Peter Cushing also stands out in what was then a rare non-horror role as the local priest who believes that no-one is completely beyond redemption.
In order to emphasise an almost drama-documentary feel of authenticity, Dearden shot the film on location amongst the art deco tenements of Gerard Gardens, believing them to be representative of a Liverpool slum. However, his set dressers nonetheless had to exaggerate the dilapidation, and the locals later objected to the way their home had been co-opted into Dearden and Kennaway's central thesis that poverty breeds crime. Other critics complained about the superficiality of the film's analysis of the causes of juvenile delinquency, though it's hard to deny its rousing effectiveness as a high-powered melodrama.