Rick Blaine's past is very sketchy, and we never know his previous occupation or why he cannot return to his home country, the U.S. In 1935 he fought the facists in Spain and in 1936 ran guns to Ethiopia, always on the "good" side. In Paris frequents the cafe "La Belle Aurore", run by a man he calls "Frenchy", and during this period he met Ilsa Lund, the love of his life. When the Germans marched into Paris he and Ilsa, along with Rick's trusted friend and piano player Sam, planned to run away to Marseillaise, but Ilsa left him stranded on the train station with only a note saying, "I cannot go with you or ever see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, my darling, and God bless you. Ilsa."
During this time (early December 1941) Rick sets up a cafe ("Rick's Cafe Americaine") in Casablanca, Morocco with Sam as his piano player. This cafe attracts the likes of refugees, Gestapo officers, pickpockets, and Resistance fighters. Heartbroken over losing Ilsa, Rick is turned from a passionate, political man to a cynical, neutral wreck who maintains short relationships and has no respect for women, as seen by his handling of current girlfriend Yvonne. His neutral political stance and his friendship with shady police officer Renault keep him out of trouble. When Rick stumbles into possession of letters of transit (thief Ugarte asked Rick to keep them for a short period of time but Ugarte was arrested shortly thereafter), which are signed by Charles de Gaulle and allow anybody to write their own ticket out of Casablanca without any question, his life is sent into a tailspin. Right as Ugarte is taken out of his cafe, in walk Resistance fighter Victor Lazlo....and his wife Ilsa. When Ilsa tries to explain everything, Rick won't listen to her and drunkenly denounces her as a whore. After Rick has heard the whole story, (Ilsa married Lazlo in secret; when he was taken to a concentration camp and presumed to be dead, Ilsa was hopeless until she met and fell in love with Rick. However, when it was revealed that Lazlo was still alive, Ilsa decided to stay with him--if she told Rick he would never have left Paris and jeopardized his life), Rick overcomes his heartbreak and, after much resistance, agrees to help get Lazlo out so that he can continue his work. Rick lets Ilsa believe that Lazlo will leave alone and she will stay with Rick; at the same time he lets Renault believe the same, and that this would be the perfect opportunity for Renault to arrest Lazlo on a legitimate charge. But while Renault is about to arrest Lazlo, Rick pulls out a gun and all 4 make it to the airport. It is here that Rick sacrifices his great love for something bigger and more important; he manipulates Ilsa into boarding a plane to Lisbon with her husband by telling her that she would be arrested if she stayed, that she would eventually regret it, that no matter what they will always remember their brief time in Paris. Lazlo and Ilsa safely board the plane and after Rick bravely shoots to death the evil Gestapo officer Major Strasser, the previously shady Renault and privately passionate Rick decide to fly to Brazzaville to join in the good fight, begining a beautiful friendship.