Miguel Pinero's screenplay for this film is based on his play which won two Obies and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1973-1974. The movie was shot in New York City's "tombs" prison with a mixed cast of professional and amateurs — including several ex-cons and ex-addicts. Except for a scene which features pop stars Freddy Fender and Curtis Mayfield performing some musical numbers, the film as a realistic feel to it.

Short Eyes is the story of a cellblock thrown into a state of hostility and murderous anger by the arrival of a white man accused of sexually molesting a child. To these black and Puerto Rican convicts, this offense is an unforgivable sin. They immediately ostracize him, making it quite clear that he is unacceptable. Juan, one of the few sensitive souls in the group, listens to his story — a touching, weird, and almost surrealistic description of his crime.

All the pent-up physical tension and nervous humor of prison life are revealed in this severely naturalistic drama. Racial hatreds flare up; there is a homosexual seduction scene, much talk of masturbation and then, finally, a murder. Short Eyes has a rhythmic intensity to it and a gritty realism that just won't quit. Three performances are excellent: Bruce Davidson as the child molester, Jose Perez as Juan, and Joe Carberry as a violent killer. The ultimate message of the film is that the prison is a microcosm of society's bigotries, preconceived hatreds, and group pressures enforced against undesirable outsiders.