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Ranks are used as a leveling system in L.A. Noire. Cole Phelps can obtain experience during his investigations on cases. Finding evidence and being a good interrogator will help Phelps to move up in the ranks. Experience points can also be gained for locating golden film reels, landmarks and shields. For leveling (ranking) up, you receive intuition points and other rewards such as a secret vehicle locations being highlighted on your map or other outfits. The maximum rank obtained is 20. Achieving the maximum rank will reward the player with The Brass achievement/trophy.
Assuming Phelps conducts interrogations properly, and the player has also been seeking out the various collectables, it is actually possible to max out at Level 20 by the midpoint of the game. As a consequence, the game may be considered more challenging after this point as there is no longer any method of regenerating intuition points once level 20 is achieved.