As Laszlo and Ilsa leave Rick's Café, Laszlo describes Rick's behavior as puzzling, but Ilsa does not offer her companion any further insight as to the nature of her relationship with Rick. Renault helps Laszlo and Ilsa into a taxi, but as they drive away, the camera stays on Renault, who sends one of his minions to follow them. He watches them leave, smoking a cigarette contemplatively.
Later that night, a spotlight crosses over the darkened door of Rick's Café Americain. Cut to inside the cafe, where Rick is sitting at a table, drinking alone. The lighting is high contrast, with harsh key lights magnifying the turmoil in Rick's eyes. Sam tries to get Rick to go home, but the drunken Rick behaves like a petulant child, refusing to leave the cafe and insisting that Ilsa is coming back. After the audience has accepted Rick as a hardened, unemotional cynic, all his emotion comes tumbling out in this scene. He starts ruminating on what people are doing in New York City, revealing perhaps a bit of homesickness. Then, Rick slams his fist on the table and utters one of the most famous lines in movie history: "Of all the gin joins in all the world, she walks into mine."
Rick demands that Sam play "When Time Goes By" for him, and Sam has no choice but to comply. As Sam plays, the camera tracks in close to Rick, and it is clear that hearing this song rips his heart open. The film then dissolves to a memory of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Rick and Ilsa are driving together in a convertible with carefree smiles on their faces. There is a montage of loving moments as they ride on a boat on the Seine with the Eiffel Tower in the background, and spend time in a beautiful airy apartment where Ilsa puts white flowers in a vase and Rick pops open a bottle of champagne. As they sit together and drink and laugh, it becomes clear that they have agreed to ask no questions about each other's past. However, it doesn't really seem to matter to either of them, as Rick clinks his glass against Ilsa's and says, "Here's looking at you, kid." Dissolve again to the pair dancing together under a disco ball, and later, on their couch while the lights of Paris twinkle behind a gauzy curtain in the background. Rick cannot believe his luck in finding a girl like Ilsa. She tells him that there was another man in her life once, but he died. They quickly revert to their "no-questions" policy and share a passionate kiss instead of delving deeper.
Dissolve into newsreel footage of the Nazi Army crossing the border into France. The invasion is all over newspaper headlines, and the excited paperboys run through the street broadcasting the news. Rick and Ilsa are taken aback by how quickly the Germans are moving. Ilsa shows concern for Rick, revealing that he is on the Germans' blacklist; he will not be safe once the Germans arrive in Paris. This moment changes the dynamic of their relationship; all of a sudden, they can no longer ignore the past. Dissolve to the shadowy interior of La Belle Aurore and tilt up from the floor to Rick. The camera follows him as he brings over a bottle of champagne and pours it into two glasses sitting empty atop the piano on which Sam is playing "As Time Goes By." Ilsa is evidently troubled, but Rick has a a smile on his face and cracks anti-German jokes.
Cut outside where a German voice speaks authoritatively over a loudspeaker. Ilsa translates, saying that the Gestapo is announcing the German Army's arrival in Paris and telling the city's inhabitants how to act once they are occupied. Ilsa and Rick mourn the bad timing of their affair and hold each other tight as cannon fire sounds from an uncomfortable proximity. Rick has to get out of Paris because there is a price on his head, and he asks Ilsa to come with him. She tells him she will meet him at the station at 5:00 pm and gently brushes off his suggestions of marriage. She bemoans that the war has complicated their relationship and ominously asks Rick to "kiss me as if it were the last time."
Dissolve to the chaotic train station, filled with people trying to flee Paris in the pouring rain. Sam tells Rick that Ilsa is nowhere to be found. He hands Rick a note from Ilsa that says, 'Richard, 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'. The ink runs as the rain pours down on the notepaper. The last call for the train to Marseilles sounds and Sam hurries Rick onto the train. As the train pulls out of the station, Rick crumples the note and throws it down onto the tracks. Puffs of steam signal the dissolve back to the present-day and Rick's Café.
By now, Rick is so drunk that he knocks over his whiskey glass. Sam stops playing and rights the glass and suddenly, the door opens. Ilsa stands there, her head shrouded in a gauzy scarf. Rick stops mid-pour and looks up at her in an emotional close-up, brow furrowed. He smiles briefly but swallows it. An orchestral swell accompanies Ilsa's entrance into the bar. She needs to talk to Rick, and tries to get him to stop drinking, but he is too unsettled by her sudden appearance in Casablanca. She says she never would have come to the city had she known he'd be there. He reveals how bitter he still is about her abandonment, describing the feeling as having his "insides...kicked out." He speaks about the man he was in Paris in the third person, because that passionate lover no longer exists.
Ilsa leans in close to him and asks if she can tell him a story. She describes her own journey to Paris, referring to herself in the third person as well. Newly in Paris, she met a man (Laszlo, though she does not say his name) she had heard of and admired for a long time. He opened up her world and "she looked up to him and worshiped him with a feeling she supposed was love." Tears fall down her face as she speaks. However, Rick coldly asks if she left him for Laszlo or if there were other men in between. Hurt, Ilsa gets up abruptly and leaves the cafe, but the camera stays on Rick, cutting to a close-up of him as he drops his head onto the table behind his nearly empty whiskey bottle.
Cut to a wide shot of Renault's office with the bannister in the foreground. The perspective of the shot makes it appear as though the bars of the bannister are physically separating Renault from Strasser. Major Strasser openly states that he believes Ugarte has left the German couriers' stolen transit papers with Rick. Renault does not deny his suspicion but tells Strasser that even if he has the papers, Rick is far too smart to give anything away. Major Strasser sneers, describing Rick as a "bumbling American" to which Renault comments about the Americans "bumbling" into Berlin in 1918. Major Strasser quickly changes the subject, showing that the German defeat during World War I is still a sore point for him.
Laszlo and Ilsa enter Renault's office. While Renault, as usual, greets them with polite small talk, Major Strasser gets straight to his point. He labels Laszlo a prisoner of the Third Reich and informs him that there is no way he will get out of Casablanca. Renault apologetically agrees, and since his signature has to be on every exit visa out of Casablanca, this seals Laszlo's fate. Laszlo and Ilsa appear to accept this and prepare to leave, but Major Strasser has one last offer for them. If Laszlo will give up the names of all the underground resistance leaders, he will approve their visas overnight. Laszlo, who did not give up names even when he was in a German concentration camp, has no intention of doing so now. He says that even if Nazis kill all of the resistance leaders, the people of Europe will rise up against them. Their power play builds as Renault brings up Ugarte and insinuates that he and Major Strasser arranged his death. Curtiz frames this as a marked threat, and there are quick cuts between each person in the room as this information sinks in. Ilsa and Laszlo do not change their minds and walk out of the office. The shot lingers in the office as one of Renault's officers tells him that another visa issue has come up. Renault, understanding the code, grins slyly and responds, "show her in."
This section represents a major turning point for Rick's character. All of the interpersonal boundaries he establishes in the first half of the film come tumbling down rapidly as soon as Ilsa walks into his bar. Michael Curtiz shows his audience a stripped-down, out-of-control Rick. The man who barely flinched as Ugarte was carted off to jail now mournfully drinks alone, remembering his lost love. Suddenly, many hints and subtle moments from the first half of the film come full circle. For example, in the first scene inside Rick's, Yvonne asks Rick what he is doing that night, and he answers, "I never make plans that far ahead." The gravity of this line is revealed in the Paris flashback, when Rick asks Ilsa to marry him and she tells him he is planning too far ahead. It becomes clear that many facets of Rick's hardened personality are direct results of Ilsa's abandonment. He has shut down the kind of vulnerable behavior that he believes led to his heartbreak, which is a form of emotional self-defense.
The use of the flashback is particularly poignant to understanding the broader themes of the film. Syd Field describes the flashback as "a technique used to expand the audience's comprehension of story, characters and situation" (Field 166). Rick is a man who is not ready to confront his past or even accept the reason for his pain, and so a flashback is the only way to reveal his and Ilsa's history without compromising the consistency of Rick's character. By showing the audience the roots of Rick's hardened exterior, Curtiz is able to move the story forward.
The tone of the flashback is also key to understanding Rick's persona, as well as the context of the film. First of all, the film dissolves from Rick's sad and drunken face into the majestic Arc de Triomphe. Rick and Ilsa drive together in a convertible, an image that proves "a picture is worth a thousand words." In the scenes in Casablanca, Rick is rarely shot straight on, and never with another person sharing the frame with him equally. Rather, he moves between planes and shadows, always separated from the people he speaks to. In the flashback, however, Rick and Ilsa sit next to each other, smiling, as she looks up at the sunshine. They are clearly in love and carefree, with no boundaries (or so they believe). Curtiz underlines the differences between the present-day and the past with his use of dissolves. "The dissolve can form a bridge between disparate times and places...it is intended to be seen or at least experienced" (Katz 322). The dissolves soften the images within the flashback and make them feel more like fond memories, firmly anchored in the past.
In June 1942, when Casablanca was in pre-production, President Roosevelt set up the Office of War Information, which was a public-relations effort to encourage Americans to support the War Effort. The OWI took a specific interest in Hollywood, setting up an office right at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. By this time, Casablanca had already gone into production but, in general, the film fulfilled OMI's requirement that films embody patriotic themes. According to the OWI/BMP review of the film, Casablanca "showed the value of personal sacrifice, but also the evils of facism and the strength and security of America."
However, as Aljean Harmetz writes, "evidence suggests that the bureaucrats would have tried to get Hal Wallis and Jack Warner to soften its portrayal of [Renault]" because they felt he was a "negative portrait of Vichy France". Although he is a generally antagonistic character, Renault actually does stand up to Major Strasser in this section. When Major Strasser insults Rick, Renault is quick to come to the American's defense by bringing up the German defeat at the hands of the Allies during World War I, something the Third Reich (and therefore, Strasser) was eager to forget. This kind of character development is one of the reasons that Casablanca is such a classic. The main characters do not feel like mouthpieces of a particular political agenda, American or otherwise. The OWI remained uneasy about the character of Renault by the time it came to release Casablanca and advised Warner Bros. against showing the film in its titular city, fearing the reaction from Vichy supporters.
Meanwhile, there were additional internal censorship challenges for the filmmakers of Casablanca, which actually turned out to be blessings in disguise. The inability to portray sexuality openly forced Curtiz and the writers to find more subtle ways to express physical relationships between men and women. "All the writers...struggle[d] with the illicit sexual relationship between Rick and [Ilsa]. Fornication was prohibited by the Production Code which the studios had set up in an attempt to stave off government censorship." Therefore, it was a challenge for the filmmakers to portray the depth of Rick and Ilsa's love without crossing any of these lines. They made sure to remove any beds from the scenes where Rick and Ilsa are together in Rick's apartment. In addition, the Production Code Administration was uneasy about the insinuation that Captain Renault offers exit visas to women who are willing to sleep with him. In this section, Claude Rains does an excellent job delivering the line, "show her in", subtly revealing his intentions without any explicit lines or images.
Harry and Jack Warner closed down Warner Bros.'s operations in Germany in July 1934 while other studios turned a blind eye in favor of continuing to profit from occupied countries. The contrast between the scenes in pre-invasion Paris and occupied Paris reflect Warner Bros.'s stance on the Third Reich. First of all, the sun is shining in Paris before the German Army arrives, and after they invade France, rain begins to pour. Rick and Ilsa are starry-eyed lovers before the occupation, and afterwards, they are tormented by secrets. In addition to indicating Warner's political bias, the political context of this flashback sets up the eventual realization that both Ilsa and Rick will have at the end of the film. Although they love each other, they cannot escape from their pasts or from the international turmoil that surrounds their relationship.