Rick Blaine, the cynical owner of Rick's Café Americain, often appears too jaded to be impressed or moved by anyone. He refuses to accept drinks from customers, treats his lover Yvonne without affection or respect, and seems not to care that a war is being waged around him or that desperate refugees have flocked to Casablanca. He makes a point of broadcasting his aloofness, stating on several occasions, "I stick my neck out for nobody." However, another Rick lurks behind his façade of cynicism. Near the beginning of the film, he refuses entry to the bar's private back room to a member of the Deutsche Bank, even though other, less prominent people are allowed in—a clue that despite his proclaimed apathy, his political sympathies lie with the Allies. He also criticizes the criminal Ugarte for charging refugees too much for exit visas. Shortly thereafter, Louis calls him a sentimentalist, and we learn that before coming to Casablanca, Rick was involved in political causes, supporting losing sides against fascist aggressors in Spain and Ethiopia. From the opening scene, Rick shows himself to be a mysterious and complicated man—terse, solitary, and self-involved, but also generous, discriminating, and perhaps a political partisan.

When Ilsa arrives in Casablanca, we start to understand some of Rick's mysterious past. In a flashback to his time in Paris, we see a younger, happier, lighter Rick in love with Ilsa. As though to emphasize how different he is in Paris, he is called Richard, not Rick, in all the flashback scenes. Though Rick and Ilsa plan to leave Paris together after the Nazis' arrival, Ilsa stands Rick up at the train station, and this painful separation helps explain how the optimistic Richard became the aloof, cynical Rick we see at the beginning of the film. Rick is not coldhearted, but he suffers from heartbreak. When Ilsa appears at the bar, Rick initially reacts angrily and refuses to give her and Laszlo the letters of transit. By the end of the film, he acts heroically, sacrificing both a possible future with Ilsa and his comfortable life in Casablanca so that Laszlo can escape with Ilsa and continue his important political work. In effect, three Ricks appear in the movie. In Paris, he is a romantic innocent; in Casablanca, a jaded, hard-hearted capitalist; and by the end of the film, a committed, self-sacrificing idealist. Ultimately, Rick's story remains incomplete. A dark mystery from Rick's past prevents him from returning to his native America, and though we learn much about him, we never learn why he can't go home.